It is a truth universally acknowledged that…Victorian prudishness leads to more babies born out of wedlock. Fine, this is perhaps not a sentiment Jane Austen would have endorsed at least publically. But growing up as an Evangelical Christian in the South, I definitely remember seeing the troubling parallels between 19th century British attitudes toward sex and those views espoused by my church. For both the Victorians as well as fellow Bible-Belt dwellers of my youth, sex (particularly the kind that frequently happens between teenagers) was not a freely discussed subject – unless you count the numerous sermons we sat through which made it clear that one’s relationship with God was mostly dependent on virginity. So my friends and I wore the chastity rings, took oaths to God and our parents, and proceeded to silently suffer the guilt and anguish about all the temptations that met us every day throughout our teenage years. And yet, sex was still had, babies got born, and sometimes marriages were hastily arranged, but the public discourse took no notice. Our community didn’t talk about sex in any pragmatic way because our good God-fearing teenagers weren’t having any, thank you very much.
Meanwhile, people who don’t mind having an adult conversation about sex understand that teen pregnancy is a very important metric when you’re considering health disparities in this country. Apart from causing all sorts of serious issues for the baby (prematurity, low birth weight, higher mortality in general) the effect can also be devastating for the young parents who frequently are forced to abandon dreams of higher education, accept less income potential, and enter ill-matched marriages, which are the foundation for all the domestic problems we imagine when thinking of babies having babies. CDC data collected from the past 20 years concurs with this, and it turns out that teenagers from poor families and those from the South get pregnant a lot more often than their peers in the Northeast and the West.
Admittedly this is a vast and multi-factorial problem, and I certainly don’t blame just the Church for all the teen pregnancy in our country. But this geographic divide is striking, and having lived, worked, and gone to school on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line I have seen with my own eyes the red state/ blue state difference. Church and cultural attitudes toward sex figure heavily into this contrast. The average teenager’s hormonal milieu is the same everywhere, and the pressure to have sex – particularly on young girls – from their peers and the media is pretty constant. But to make matters worse, well meaning conservative society heaps fear and guilt on top of these chaotic feelings and what you get on the whole is the same teenage sex with fewer basic precautions and less confidence in the grown-ups they look to for guidance.
When I got to college at the University of Arkansas, I was struck by how many bright, ambitious young women from small towns shared a sense of gratitude for having escaped their high school years without any pregnancies. While local lore said that kids in this good Christian heartland didn’t have sex before marriage, these girls recognized it was happening and that the status quo was a threat to their future because too many of their peers were ill-prepared to prevent their pregnancies or deal with the consequences.
But whatever the causes, it remains that we have about 4 times the teen birth rate of our fellow industrialized countries. And it’s clear that young women across this nation don’t have enough people advocating for them as they navigate sexual maturation. But now the U.S. House of Representatives is trying to eliminate one reliable source for their sexual health care by defunding Planned Parenthood in a bid to snuff out it all together. Last Friday the House took a party-line vote on a spending bill that would totally defund our most reliable and widely distributed family planning and sexual health network, to the tune of $330 million through the end of September. Opponents of Planned Parenthood have had their sights on the organization and its providers for decades because of their role in providing safe, affordable abortions. But federal funds are already barred from subsidizing abortion at Planned Parenthood or anywhere else for that matter. What’s really getting the axe here are money saving, affordable, preventative-health services (like oral contraception, condoms, and cancer screenings) for the poor. Yet supporters of this measure would have us believe it’s all about the unborn and the budget.
Well, as someone who grew up in a culture where young people supposedly have less sex but miraculously end up pregnant more often, I know ignorance when I see it. This foolish war on women’s preventative health care will increase states’ healthcare expenditure AND have the same results as the abstinence only sex-ed we were subjected to as kids – more teen pregnancies and more abortion, though from less safe and clean clinics if Planned Parenthood is gone. The South is not having a rash of immaculate conceptions, and my fellow Christians would do well to come to grips with that.
With respect to the pro-life movement in general, I honestly understand the imperatives of righteous anger, but pause momentarily to reflect on the fact that defunding Planned Parenthood will not undo Roe v. Wade. What it will do is leave lots of people without needed sexual health care, and even virgins can get cancer. So, as the debate moves to the U.S. Senate, put away your placards just this once and prove that the pro-life movement does not strictly speak for the unborn, but that it is capable of defending those of us who have made it out of the womb too.