Friday, April 23, 2010

Teaching about abortion

For those of you that know where I work (Planned Parenthood) you will probably not be surprised by my blog topic of abortion education. However, I am a little surprised with myself for choosing this topic mostly because I know so much about it already. But it is for this reason that I should be the one person to write about this topic. I do feel that it’s an important issue and that unplanned pregnancy is so common place in the U.S. that it’s important for teens (really everyone) to know about all their options before experiencing a pregnancy and preferably before they become sexually active.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (2008) approximately half of American women will have an unplanned pregnancy at some point in their lives and one third (35%) will have had an abortion by age 45. In 2005, 1.6 millions abortions were performed in the U.S. which is high for a developed nation. It’s apparent that unplanned pregnancy and abortion is very relevant to Americans' lives and therefore they should be equipped with the tools that are needed to cope with this situation should it ever arise, which according to statistics, is likely.
It’s easy for me to compose an argument as to why abortion should be incorporated into sexuality education. It’s not so easy on the other hand to actually teach this topic. Because it is so controversial and emotionally charging many teachers are hesitant to touch this topic. They may be uncomfortable with the topic themselves and/or feel that they are not qualified to teach about abortion.
Now even though I have never personally taught on the subject, as a counselor (and educator) for an abortion clinic, I can offer some good advice for those of you who may need to teach this topic in the future:

1) know your own values/beliefs/attitudes about abortion. I can’t stress this piece of advice enough. This is something that we spent a lot of class time on during this semester and everything we talked about applies to teaching about abortion as well. Our values matter, but this is one topic in which it’s best to stay as neutral as possible.
2) Know your facts. There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about abortion. If you type “abortion” into Google search, you’ll get a lot of biased and one-sided information that comes up. If you need to look up information using the internet try searching “accurate information” and “abortion”. I’ll list some good reliable sources below.
3) If you are uncomfortable teaching this topic or are unable to answer questions students have, ask for help! There are people who are better equipped to teach this subject than others – like me! Having a guest speaker or presenter is one way to take the weight off your shoulders. You can use the guest speaker as a learning opportunity for yourself – observe how he or she approaches the subject, handles comments and emotions and presents the information.

Here’s a video – documentary style – which looks at a religious school in the UK and how abortion is being incorporated into its curriculum.

Web resources that provide accurate information:

SexEd Library: lesson plan from F.L.A.S.H. curriculum

SIECUS: lesson plan “teaching all sides” page 77

Alan Guttmacher Institute. (2008). An overview of abortion in the United States. Retrieved from Alan Guttmacher Website,


  1. Thank you for this blog. I really appreciated pointing out that sometimes, even we as sexuality educators, might need some help with this topic and to seek out our collegues who may be able to help us. Abortion is so emotionally charged for so many people, and we need to be aware, not only of our own values, but a basic understanding of our audience as well. You never know what you may face with your audience when it comes to this topic. It's such a touchy subject, but it really is an important one to discuss and educate on. There is so much misinformation, it's important for us, as sexuality educators, to be up to date on the current factual information and to share this with our audiences.

  2. Yes, to piggyback on what Allison said in response to this lovely post...

    I do think that being a fully prepared and competent sexuality educator means being aware not only of your own values, but your feelings towards the values of others. I think one of the greatest tools I've obtained from this education is the ability to appreciate how other's values can be maintained with respect to controversial topics, not disregarded or buried in order to appear "progessive" or "liberal." I think there is amazing potential for the sexuality educator that can be respectful to both their own values and others. It's certainly no easy task, but it's a very powerful endeavor.

  3. I agree with Sarah in that this program really helped me clarify my own thoughts, ideas, and values on a whole host of subjects, including abortion.
    It is extremely challenging to teach abortion in a high school setting, even more so when you're doing it in a round-about way. I teach in a rather conservative and religious community and it is really difficult to teach it without attempting to dodge a large scale conversation on religion and values stemming from it. We aren't supposed to talk religion in school, but it's challenging because they bring it up constantly when it's tied to this.
    No matter how many times we discuss this not being a religious conversation, I feel it's really hard for it not to be. Especially with this population, where many of them are devout to their religion and have made their life choices on it.
    Any suggestions on how to keep it as medical as possible without brushing off their opinions, ultimately causing them to shut down?

  4. My experiences with educators explaining abortions have been nothing but positive. Each time the subject has been addressed, it has been a medically-sound discussion of an option given to women as an alternative to adoption, or carrying a pregnancy to term. It has always been explained as a procedure that individuals have to make a conscious decision about and is not for everyone. For me, the discussion of abortion has always begun with a introduction noting that this is a controversial topic with many reasons for and against the idea. I think that addressing these thoughts at the beginning brings students together knowing that it is appropriate to have different, or mixed feelings on the subject of abortion based on each person's cultural views and beliefs.

  5. These are three great pieces of advice for teaching about abortion: know your own values/beliefs, get the facts, and consider bringing in an expert!

    I thought I knew the facts until I took Sex and Law last summer. Before moving here, I was a member of the Board of Directors of NARAL Pro-Choice in New Hampshire. We spent a great deal of resources educating the public and countering the misinformation by the pro-life groups. The medical misinformation was sometimes hard to stay on top of and countering with the scientific facts did little to dissuade the public that what they heard or thought they knew was indeed inaccurate.

    As I learned from Dr. Hall, it is all in the framing.

    In class we read the book “How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and The War on Sex” written by Cristina Page. I highly recommend reading this book before teaching your next lesson on abortion. I recommend it not only for its wealth of statistics on a variety of sexuality experiences, but for education on the exact nature of the public debate.

    It may also help you with that first piece of advice – getting clear on your own values and beliefs.

    You may find students asking questions about the public debate as they sort out their own values. So when presenting facts and describing the public debate, evidence points to a very different issue. It is not about abortions. It is not even about birth control. It is about sex.

    “Pro-life groups are not merely anti-abortion and anti-birth control. They are against sex and the sex lives the vast majority of Americans enjoy.” (Page, 2006)

    You may not actually say this as an educator! Or if you did you would need a great deal of time presenting the evidence that leads up to this declaration.

    I offer this as incentive to read this book and to identify for your students the complexities of this public debate. I believe many of us are grounded in the idea that healthy sexuality starts with being informed/educated. Pointing out the framing involved in the debate may empower them to become more informed as sexual beings and as citizens.


    Page, C. (2006) How the pro-choice movement saved America: freedom, politics and the war on sex. Basic Books. New York: New York.

  6. Sandra,
    Thanks so much for your book suggestion. You are absolutely right that many people, even sexuality educators, need help or some sort of framework to help them define their own values on this issue. I will admit that my values on this issue have changed several times during my life on this issue and have even changed my values and beliefs since working since working at Planned Parenthood.

    I can understand you frustration to a degree about teaching the medical facts of abortion while omitting the religious aspect of it. My suggestion to you is to give your students some outlet for them to express their views on abortion before you even began teaching your lesson. Since you're not supposed to include religion in classroom discussion I would suggest letting the students write down their beliefs and opinions on a piece of paper and handing it in to you (throw them away or shred them after class). This way they can get out their feelings without actually having to talk aloud about it. I would also let them know that just because you're going over the medical facts that it does not disregard anything that they just wrote down.

    Last thing- You mentioned that they shut down because they can't talk about the religion part of it. I highly doubt that they shut down completely. This is a controversial topic - kinda like masturbation. No one talks about it but really everyone wants to talk about it. Even if they aren't participating, they are likely listening.

  7. No matter how much knowledge you have about the topic or how prepared you are, this topic is always a difficult one to teach about. It is always to difficult to put your own views aside.

    Teaching at a religiously affiliated university I sometimes assume what the views of the students will be and they always surprise me. Since this is a difficult topic to talk about and some students feel as if it is really personal I integrate clickers into the classroom. They are a great teaching tool

  8. One of the most important things I can add to this conversation is to realize that, if you teach college students, most likely there are students in your classrooms who have had abortions (or have had partners have them). Being mindful of this can help you to be much more sensitive to how you present information.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post and great comments!