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It’s Time For Proper Abortion Education in Schools

‘Proper abortion education must address the fact that abortion bans do not prevent abortions, they only prevent safe abortions.’

Gemma Clark argues that children (especially girls) need a rounded education about abortions, relationships and their bodies.

Gemma Clark abortion

Glasgow has made world headlines due to the recent COP26 conference. However, a different type of protest happening in the city, led to calls for the Scottish government to implement ‘buffer zones’ outside of hospitals. ‘40 Days For Life’ is an American anti-abortion organisation that was founded in Texas, USA in 2004. The organisation is now active in many parts of the UK with a member of the Scottish Parliament admitting to having attended at least one of the protests in Scotland.

Gillian MacKay MSP, reported to the Scottish Parliament the testimony of a 17-year-old sexual assault victim who had men call out to her and then call her a ‘teenage murderer’ for ignoring them. Many women have shared stories of the intimidation they felt when met with protestors while exercising their legal and medical right to an abortion. The Scottish government have so far declined to have buffer zones outside of health facilities leaving this to local authorities in what will become a postcode lottery.

These developments in Scotland made me reflect on the recent removal of women and girls’ and other people’s reproductive rights in various parts of the world e.g Texas and Poland. I recently interviewed some teenage girls about their abortion education and found their experiences very concerning. Their experiences included ‘we haven’t been taught anything’ and ‘they just tell us that it is wrong and don’t give us any other side’. “Abortion was only covered in RE as a moral topic, it was not a health topic and we were given no information on accessing abortion’. I believe this one-sided control of the narrative is a direct violation of the United Nations Rights of the Child (a set of laws that Scotland is keen to subscribe to). The UN convention on the rights of the child applies to everyone under 18 and children under 18 can and do get pregnant.

Article 3 – “the best interests of the child must be a top priority” 

Article 17 – “every child has the right to reliable information from a variety of sources…” Article 17 is the human right that I believe schools are falling short on, particularly schools that push a ‘pro-life’ agenda. Pro-life literature is at best one-sided and at worst, filled with misinformation. For example, the myth that women regret abortions. Studies actually show that most women do not regret making this decision. Or more worryingly, peddling the myth that abortion is a cause of cancer.

Schools are not the place to push religious agendas that can negatively impact the life chances of girls. Schools should be rights-respecting places of balanced education, reliable information, critical thinking and equality for all. Proper abortion education must address the fact that abortion bans do not prevent abortions, they only prevent safe abortions. Women die when they are denied abortions. A woman recently died of septic shock in Poland after she was denied life-saving health care (The Guardian 7.11.21).

The widely accepted (and highly emotive) narrative that all stages of human gestation involve a ‘baby’ is not a scientific perspective but one driven by religious ideology. This ideology can certainly be studied at school, but nothing should override the reproductive rights of girls in our care, who rely on school to access important information about their health. A lack of access to abortion and education is furthermore a matter of social deprivation. According to Public Health Scotland, of the 28 per thousand girls who fall pregnant annually, those in the most affluent areas are more likely to terminate than deliver. Girls in the areas of highest deprivation are more likely (over four times more likely) to deliver than terminate.

While women being killed by abortion laws is a hugely important issue for young people to know about, these socioeconomic issues are also of importance. Having to go through an unwanted pregnancy can have a devastating impact on a girl’s future and be a very challenging barrier to her right to an education. It is overwhelmingly the girl who is left to deal with the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy, and we should not be surprised at this when girls are still disproportionately burdened with household chores in a way that boys aren’t. Research from the charity Theirworld in March 2021 found that British girls spend significantly more time than boys doing household chores such as cleaning, shopping and caring for relatives and siblings than boys. The potential and future of girls need to start mattering.

For girls to ever be fully equal, they need reproductive autonomy and need to be empowered enough to claim this right. A girl’s life, dreams and aspirations are not second place to a biological process. We, as a society need to challenge the paternalistic control of young women’s bodies and help them build the confidence to make their own decisions. Why are girls not taught that an early abortion can be a relatively quick, straightforward forward and non-invasive procedure? Crucially though, it is a time-sensitive procedure, so the earlier appointments are made the better. 

It is not good enough to teach abortion as a ‘moral dilemma’, or a mere theoretical concept to girls whose lives could be so greatly impacted by such lessons. I understand that other views on this topic may need to be explored but where is the balance? Why are girls not being taught the fact that abortion bans do not stop abortions, they only stop safe abortions. Why is their own bodily autonomy, lives and ambitions not held in higher regard than a bundle of cells? Why are girls not taught that they are fully human, not mere incubators? Girls should also not be under any pressure to ‘have the baby and put it up for adoption’ or be bullied into considering ‘all the couples who can’t have children’. Children do not owe anybody children. Adult’s challenges to parenthood are not the concerns of schoolgirls and not their burdens to carry.

Another factor to consider in well-rounded, wellbeing focussed education is the portrayal of women and girls in the media and the value they are afforded by society. Girls still face ‘slut shaming’ in a way that boys do not. Pro-lifer campaigners often portray women who access abortions as promiscuous, irresponsible, selfish and inherently bad. There is a broader cultural problem of how girls are treated by society. Girls do not need a ‘good reason’ to access healthcare. Many abortions happen because of awful crimes such as rape, incest, or life-threatening complications. But none of these things need happen for a child to know that their life is the one that matters most, and they have the right to some control over their own destiny. Finally, excellent health education would also acknowledge that not all people who seek abortion are women. Nonbinary people and men with uteruses also need access to abortion and the more educated and empowered young people are, the more equipped they will be to deal with the barriers between them and their rights. And maybe they will even be brave enough to tell someone who is waving a placard in their face where to get off.

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The author

Gemma Clark

Gemma Clark is a Scottish primary teacher, active trade union member and writer concerned with many issues including women’s rights and school safety. She has appeared on ITV news to discuss safety mitigations during the Covid 19 pandemic and regularly writes for the Times Educational Supplement. She has a passion for the wellbeing of school staff and children and is a qualified Children and Family Yoga Instructor, and Massage in Schools instructor. Gemma also believes in teacher allyship and supports anti-racist education and the decolonisation of the curriculum. She is an advocate for new the Scottish LGBT inclusion policy and a founding member and admin of a wellbeing group set up to support teachers in Scotland during the pandemic.

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