Edward Davies: Abstain from emotive rhetoric, please

Edward DaviesWhen I read yesterday that “anti-abortion group” Life had been asked to join a government advisory panel on sexual health, my heart sank a bit.

Not because they have been asked to join – it strikes me that in a group of a dozen or so organisations to have one representing this view is probably not entirely at odds with the views of the public our government aims to represent – but because of the language.

The abortion debate has long been mired in polarised verbiage. The debate would have you pro or anti abortion, for choice or for life. But very few people really feel like this. Nobody is “pro abortion” as if it’s some kind of beneficent gift that we should all experience at least once in our lives. Nobody is against “life” as if we can’t wait for the next chance to abort. This kind of rhetoric does nothing but ramp up the heat in opposing factions leading to the kind of headlines that all decent people should abhor.

It’s a horribly complex and emotive issue and every one of the near 200,000 abortions each year represents 200,000 totally different situations about which I know nothing. There are a lot of hard conversations to be had somewhere between pro and anti which fail to get heard over the polarised shouting from either side.

And yet such pro and anti language perpetuates, and now it is creeping over into sex education as well. Because Life are also a “pro-abstinence” group.

To date, sex education seems to have escaped some of the more binary rhetoric and although there have been disagreements and arguments over what and how children should be taught, it has been sheltered from the kind of extreme reactions of the respective lobbies that row over abortion.

But now it seems we will be herded into our respective pens over whether we are pro or anti abstinence as well. Should children be hectored about the inherent moral and physical dangers of sexual intercourse from an early age or should we dish out condoms to them on entering primary school and tell the little blighters to go experiment? These are the only options.

Except they are clearly not. Nobody is “anti” abstinence. I hope most will agree that it is okay to say no if you don’t want to have sex. And given that Life supply equipment for new babies and offer fertility treatments my hunch is that they are not universally “pro” abstinence. Just as with abortion there will be as many shades of opinion between the extremes as there are people. And yet the two stalls are being laid out in newspapers and conversations around the country: pro or anti abstinence, you choose.

There are some very important conversations that need to be had around how we teach sexual health in schools and they will have to broach the degrees to which abstinence are a part of that. What those conversations do not need is to be mired in the emotive, polarising and politicking labels that the abortion debate has spent the last 40 years wading through.

Edward Davies is editor, BMJ Careers

  • Natalie Misaljevich

    You are quite right. No one is pro-abortion, or would claim to be. However, the majority of people in this country are in fact pro-choice, whether they identify with the rhetoric or not. They value the right of the individual woman to consider her circumstances, beliefs and aspirations and make the best decision about her pregnancy taking all of these factors into account. Sadly, there is an opposing view, one which is held by a vocal minority, that is anti-choice. This view holds that a woman never has the right to decide on abortion, full stop. 

    Day in and day out schools across the land pitt these views against each other, and encourage young people to practice their debating skills. This approach totally fails to recognise that one in three women in this country will experience abortion in their reproductive life times. Polarised debate stigmatises abortion, labels women that choose abortion, and does not equip young people with the confidence to talk to parents or health professionals should they have cause to worry that they, or their partner may be pregnant unintentionally.

    That is why Education For Choice, the organisation that provides high quality abortion education, as part of comprehensive sex and relationships education, will not take place in polarised debate. Instead, EFC works with young people to explore the complexities: to consider why women experience unplanned pregnancy; what it might feel like to be in that situation; and the factors that affect women's choices. By valuing every pregnancy choice (parenthood, adoption and abortion) equally, and giving young people accurate, evidence based information about abortion, young people are able to make informed decisions about sex, contraception, pregnancy and abortion. They develop the motivation to practice safer sex when sexually active, and the confidence and vocabulary to talk to parents and health professionals when they need support.

    Comprehensive sex and relationships education (SRE) is a good thing. It does not, as you suggest, mean kitting primary school pupils out with condoms. It is age appropriate, values self esteem, and teaches young people to wait until they are ready. It equips young people with the attitudes, skills and knowledge to be healthy and to stay safe. Young people participating in comprehensive SRE are in fact more likely to delay first sex, and when they do choose to have sex, to use contraception. Comprehensive SRE has contributed to the fact that the UK's teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 20 years. 

    Tragically, the phrase abstinence education is well known and in common parlance – at least in the US – where the Bush administration funded programmes of abstinence education with disastrous effects. Abstinence education refers to exactly the sort of education which MP Nadine Dorries wishes to subject young women in this country to – i.e. the 'just say no' approach'. It is ridiculously simplistic, and does not address contraception at all. So, what happens when pledges to 'just say no' are broken? Young people pay the price, that's what: with more unplanned pregnancies, more sexually transmitted infections, and more abortions. 

    The threat of abstinence education is something we should all be aware – and afraid of. It has no place in schools in this country – our young people deserve better. And likewise, agencies like Life, which seek to obstruct women's access to reproductive health care, have no place in a sexual health forum. Their appointment is a backwards step. 

    Natalie Misaljevich 

  • EdwardDavies

    Hi Natalie,
    Thanks for your comment but I think you rather fall into the trap I am talking about. You are right that in the very simplest sense most people in this country are pro-choice, but the caveats and conditions that people put on that will be totally different and will include many people who you might consider themselves completely opposed. For example are you pro choice in line with UK law up to 24 weeks, or like the Prime Minister up to 20 weeks? Are you pro-choice like the English Church in cases where the mother is in danger or like in Australia where there is no time limit. Like in Spain at 12 weeks or Sweden at 18 weeks (you might need to check those last two limits). And in all those cases why do they support choice to the degree they do. The point is that there are a lot of reasons that people are pro-choice in a lot of different ways and stamping them with a simplistic label is more of a hinderance than a help to conversation.

    Likewise with abstinence. You say “Abstinence education refers to exactly the sort of education which MP
    Nadine Dorries wishes to subject young women in this country to – i.e.
    the 'just say no' approach'. It is ridiculously simplistic, and does not
    address contraception at all.” This simply isn't true. While there are a few very simplistic and misguided groups, mostly in America, there is little danger of that here. I may or may not agree with Dorries' motion but it called for what it did “in addition” to existing classes – it is a completely different thing from the American movements – she's calling for more teaching on abstinence, not an exclusive focus on it. That doesn't mean you have to like it of course but to simply say they are the same thing does not serve a discussion of the issues and so the education of my kids very well.