Let's be frank about teen sex and abortion.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 22 2008 6:47 PM

Good Judgment

Let's be frank about teen sex and abortion.

Nancy Keenan. Click image to expand.
NARAL president Nancy Keenan

Today, Roe v. Wade is 35 years old. If you're tired of rehashing the same debate every Jan. 22, here are two ideas that would advance the debate to a better place by this time next year. To pro-choicers: Talk about abortion the way you've been talking about teen sex, embracing an ideal number of zero. To pro-lifers: Accept that the best way to advance toward zero is through voluntary prevention.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Last week's abortion numbers, showing a huge reduction since 1990, make a strong case for the second point. So today I'll focus on the first.

Advertisement

Pro-choice leaders, to their credit, have become increasingly explicit about the importance of lowering the abortion rate. A year and a half ago, in a plea for emergency contraception, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards argued that it would "reduce the need for abortion. That's a commonsense goal supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans." Last year, she boasted, correctly, that Planned Parenthood did "more to prevent unintended pregnancies, and the need for abortion, than any organization in America."

Five days ago, in a speech honoring Roe's 35th anniversary, NARAL president Nancy Keenan reaffirmed the prevention message. "If we could prevent unintended pregnancy," said Keenan, "we could therefore reduce the need for abortion."

But when the conversation turns from numbers to the moral qualms that make reduction popular, movement leaders still flinch. Last year, in a New York Times op-ed, journalist Melinda Henneberger (now a Slate contributor) argued that public sentiment against abortion was hurting Democrats. "Most people differentiate between a fetus in the early weeks of development and at nearly full term," she wrote, citing the party's defense of partial-birth abortions. To this, Richards replied that most Americans "support women making their own decisions about pregnancy—even when those decisions are complicated or difficult. … [E]ven if they might make a different decision about abortion, they recognize that every woman's case is different."

You can see Richards edge right up to the line of discussing whether some abortions are worse than others, before smoothing it over with the nonjudgmental language of "complicated," "difficult," and "different."

In her speech, Keenan wrestled with the same dilemma. "We need to acknowledge this moral complexity: that you don't need to think abortion is the appropriate decision to believe that government shouldn't be the one making the decision," she observed. But for her part, Keenan rejected the language of appropriateness: "I will never stand idly by while women who take responsibility for their own lives, and those who depend on them, have to contend with guilt and shame, with judgment and scorn heaped upon them—rather than the support and respect they deserve."

Guilt, shame, scorn, judgment. You can see what holds back people like Keenan and Richards. Part of it is that they're personally open-minded. They really do believe every case is different—and they're right. Part of it is that they feel institutional obligations, as heads of their organizations, to protect legal abortion generally. And part of it is that they've seen morality invoked to humiliate good people and pass bad laws.

It doesn't have to be that way. It's absurd to have to say this, but judgment isn't a bad word. You can moralize without losing your soul. In fact, pro-choice leaders are already doing this—not against abortion, but against teen sex.

"The more young people have their questions answered openly about contraception, relationships, and sexual health, the more likely they are to delay sexual activity," Richards wrote last year. "And when they do become sexually active, whether in their teen years, or optimally, later on, the more likely they are to have safer sex and use contraceptives correctly." Optimally, later on. That's not a recommendation to delay pregnancy. It's a recommendation to delay sex.

Last week, Keenan went much further. "In a perfect world, no teenager would be having sex," she declared. "We all know there isn't a 15-year-old alive who is ready emotionally, physically, spiritually, or financially to live with the consequences. We absolutely need to teach our children that they should abstain from having sex too early."

That's the kind of language that makes people wake up and listen. It's not an endorsement of some oafish law. It's a call for social action toward a moral ideal of zero.

Leaders who have graduated from the movement recognize that this kind of candor has to apply to abortion as well. In today's Los Angeles Times, Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling, the former presidents of NARAL and Catholics for a Free Choice, write, "The specter of women forced into back alleys as a result of a one-time 'mistake' has been replaced with hard questions about why women get pregnant when they don't want to have babies." They conclude, "Our vigorous defense of the right to choose needs to be accompanied by greater openness regarding the real conflict between life and choice, between rights and responsibility."

Abortion and sex are different in many ways. But both are private, complex, and poorly suited to restrictive legislation. That doesn't stop pro-choice leaders from speaking the truth about teen sex. It shouldn't stop them from speaking the truth about abortion, either.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 22 2014 2:27 PM Facebook Made $595 Million in the U.K. Last Year. It Paid $0 in Taxes
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 22 2014 1:01 PM The Surprisingly Xenophobic Origins of Wonder Bread
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.