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Speaking intelligently about the female body

| Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Last week, against my best judgement, I wrote a column for The Observer titled “An Attack on Planned Parenthood is an Attack on Women’s Rights.” Even though the article was not about abortion, I was sincerely worried about the personal consequences of publishing it under my name. Primarily, I feared the damage that expressing my support for Planned Parenthood could do to my relationships with conservative friends and family. However, when a friend pointed out that my hesitation was emblematic of a larger climate of political polarization in America, I finally agreed to publish. While my fears were largely unfounded, the initial fear I felt in expressing a standard Democratic Party platform continued to bother me. My friends know me as an opinionated individual, normally unafraid to express my beliefs, so I had to ask myself what was different about this issue. I do not believe I would have hesitated to publish an equally liberal opinion on immigration, climate change or gun control. My concern therefore was not emblematic of political polarization, but rather the politicization and polarization of female reproductive care.

Unfortunately, my mistake reflected a larger political climate of purposeful misunderstanding on issues of reproductive health. When speaking about abortion in the case of rape, Todd Akin, a Senate nominee from Missouri, replied, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” The female body does not in fact have a way to “shut down” either rape or the resulting pregnancies. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee similarly explained the need for the Republican Party to “wage a war for women to empower them to be something other than victims of their gender.” He continued, “if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system … then so be it.” While I appreciate his confirmation that I am not in fact a victim of womanhood, I question his assumption that limiting access to preventative care will empower women. Furthermore, the use of birth control in no way demonstrates an inability to control one’s libido and many women use it for medical purposes.

While these are individual, isolated cases, one only has to analyze the prevalence of abstinence-only sex education to observe a systemic attack on reproductive discourse. Since 1982 the federal government has spent over $2 billion to support curriculums that withhold basic information required by teens to make informed decisions on sexual activity. Furthermore, abstinence-only curriculums are ineffective. In a federally-funded study, Mathematica Policy Evidence found that abstinence-only programs had no effect on sexual abstinence, age of first sexual intercourse, or number of partners. Furthermore, this withheld information is crucial to addressing the current knowledge gap on reproductive health. A study published by the Guttmacher Institute found that, while 69 percent of young women were committed to preventing unplanned pregnancy, 40 percent believed that using birth control “didn’t matter.” Despite the fact that almost two-thirds of American 18-year-olds have had sexual intercourse, 57 percent of sexually-active women do not received formal instruction on basic birth control methods before having sex for the first time.

Furthermore, studies have illustrated the drastic effects that teenage pregnancy, an obvious effect of inadequate information on birth control, can have on female educational achievement and poverty. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only half of teen mothers will earn a high school diploma by their 22nd birthday. Teen pregnancy is also closely correlated with poverty, with 63 percent of teen mothers receiving public assistance in the first year after birth. This cycle of poverty is perpetuated in the next generation. Children of teen mothers are less likely to receive a high school diploma, more likely to enter the welfare state and correctional facilities, and more likely to experience teenage pregnancy themselves. This is even more true for vulnerable populations; half of all young women in the foster care system become pregnant before turning 20.

Increasing access to reproductive care is fundamental to protecting the human rights of women around the country. However, protecting these rights requires talking about them. To ignore current misinformation campaigns is to be complicit in their perpetuation; if the country plans to continue politicizing the female body, it must speak about it intelligently. Conversations about Planned Parenthood, sexual education and female healthcare can be hard, but they cannot be avoided. Parties can oppose abortion, but they cannot be allowed to systematically attack basic truths about the female body. I made a mistake in hesitating to express my support for Planned Parenthood; but female reproductive care can no longer be taboo in a society valuing female lives.


Sarah Brown is a Political Science and Neuroscience major from Grand County, Colorado. She is a rising senior and will be serving as BridgeND’s president in the fall of 2018. The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of BridgeND as an organization.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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