Working in abortion education and outreach in the U.K. and the U.S. – What’s the Diff?

Jennifer is a Trainer and Project Coordinator at Education For Choice, which is guest blogging all this month.

My teenage years were spent in the Midwestern American city of Milwaukee. I keenly felt the effects of a lack of sex education and considerable obstruction to sexual health advice and services. I became an advocate and volunteer for reproductive health rights and dreamed of working full-time for issues relating to reproductive and sexual health. It proved very difficult to make a full-time career in this field not only because of the conservative U.S. culture that makes any discussion of sex controversial, but because there is so little funding for sex and relationships education (abstinence-only-until-marriage proselytising is not SRE) and sexual health services. Thus, I had to make myself content with working on research to reduce health disparities (an impossible task in a country with no guaranteed right to healthcare), dabbling in policies to implement routine HIV testing, and spending a lot of my free time working with the local Planned Parenthood affiliate.

Planned Parenthood is not only a national provider of reproductive health services (including abortions) in the U.S., but they provide sex education in schools, fundraise for their clinical and educational services, and have a separate advocacy and political arm. Still, it bothered me how much couldn’t be said or done in schools and in public. To me, it’s good public health policy for condoms to be available to students free of charge in schools. But there was no way such a program could be implemented where I lived and worked in Milwaukee and later on in Chicago. I was also bothered by how few schools and thus students had access to comprehensive sex education. Planned Parenthood was often viewed as a polarizing organisation so their educational reach into schools was minimal.

There were many reasons for wanting to move to the UK but having the opportunity to support sexual health as a career choice was a huge motivator. I knew that the UK had legalized abortion before the U.S. had (1967 vs. 1973). I knew that abortions were available for free through the NHS (government-provided abortions haven’t been an option for women in the U.S. since the passing of the Hyde Amendment, and they won’t be funded in the U.S.’s new healthcare scheme). I knew that – although patchy in provision – sex education did take place in schools in Britain and that the government did not provide funding for abstinence education. I knew that women could go to a reproductive health clinic here and not have to shield their eyes as they made their way past protestors bearing graphic signs of aborted fetuses. I also knew that abortion doctors in the UK generally did not fear for their life and did not have to show up for work wearing a bullet-proof vest. This is a culture and a country that I wanted to live and work in.

I found myself at Education For Choice nine months after moving to the UK. Sometimes I still can’t believe that I get to discuss in education and training that abortion is just as valid and supported an option for young women – or any women – as carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth is. When I accepted the job, some leftover American shame hung over me and I was nervous to tell colleagues and friends what I was going to be doing. Those who know me closely know how central to my morals reproductive justice is but living in the U.S., I always felt I had to keep my belief in a woman’s right to decide what to do with her reproductivity on the down low. I didn’t expect people to support the work that I and EFC do so enthusiastically. I got an email from my supervisor immediately after resigning, stating how glad she was that there was a charity doing abortion education because it was important work. And while abortions are available for free through the NHS, the UK has a significant struggle ahead in trying to make SRE statutory in schools (we will address PSHE being dropped from the Children, Schools and Families Bill during this pre-election wash-up period as well as related current events in future posts), increasing access to contraception and abortion, destigmatising abortion, and keeping U.S. anti-abortion funds and ideologies out of the health, education, and social services here. I’m proud to help with these efforts by working for EFC, supporting every young person’s right to facts on abortion, whoever they are, whoever they ask, wherever they go.