Teaching morality to sixteen-year-old girls requires a lot of patience, particularly when it comes to issues that revolve around the bedroom. After all, when you are sixteen you have all the answers.
I realize now that this is a necessary trait. I don’t think I could have survived my teens if I had possessed the awareness of life’s ambiguities that I have now. That sense of being sure about everything works like a kind of helpful insulation against the cold breezes of life.
Climbing the Great Wall of Abortion
But knowing this about teens doesn’t make it any easier to teach them about complex issues of morality…especially abortion. In the all-girls Catholic high school I teach at in New York City I hit a stone wall every year on that issue . “Come on, Ms. Partheymuller,” they say…
- What does the Church know about our lives?
- How can celibate men make decisions like this? They don’t know. It’s our bodies we’re talking about.
- It’s my right to do what I want.
- I wouldn’t have an abortion, but I can’t tell someone not to.
- What other choice is there? My parents would kick me out of the house.
- How could I go to college if I had a baby?
- I would be ashamed to be pregnant in a Catholic high school.
Every year it really has become a lesson in frustration for me. I’ve tried to teach about the consistent ethic of life, that all life is sacred from womb to tomb, but only rarely did I get any of the girls to be open to any way of thinking other than “abortion is the only way out for a pregnant teenager.” Though I don’t have actual statistics for the number of girls in my school who have actually chosen to have abortions, I am not so naive as to believe that none choose this option.
So this year I decided to do something different.
Divide and imagine
I divided the classes into groups of 5 or 6. Each group created an imaginary sixteen-year-old alter ego who had just discovered she was pregnant. The groups were then to divvy up a list of people to interview: a mother, a priest or minister, a godmother or aunt, a teenage boy, and someone from a crisis pregnancy center or Planned Parenthood.
The goal of the project was to get beyond the assumptions they had and discover what actual support and options were available for a pregnant teenager. One of the primary reasons why women choose abortion is because they believe they would be without economic or emotional support if they chose not to terminate their pregnancy. I wanted to find out if that could be true for my students. I also wanted to get my students talking with significant individuals in their life who they felt safe with–many students have hinted that they would choose abortion on their own without talking to anyone.
Surprises for Trixie
Initially I became somewhat unsure about the project. A group in one of my classes was typical of all the responses. One of the girls continually told me how weird it was. Another just grumbled. Her group named their sixteen-year-old alter-ego Trixie Spoon.
But after the groups had completed their interviews and came back together to discuss their findings I knew this project had really touched a nerve. Students approached me privately in the hall to tell me about conversations they had with their mothers or at the crisis pregnancy center. They were surprised by the support that they could receive from all avenues—particularly when they uncovered the fact that most of the crisis pregnancy centers were actually Catholic, and that the people they talked to wouldn’t condemn a girl for becoming pregnant. Some of the girls were relieved to discover that their parents wouldn’t kick them out of the house as they had assumed.
What surprised me most was that the majority of the groups decided they would not choose abortion in the end. Girls who assumed at the beginning that abortion was the only choice (the vast majority) changed their minds. Some said, though, that even knowing of that support, they would choose abortion because they could not imagine taking on the challenge of raising a child.
None of the twenty or so groups chose adoption. It is pretty typical among the students I teach that adoption is never considered. They fear that their child would be unloved or abused or placed in foster care. They also can’t bear to think of their child out there somewhere in the world without them.
Reflecting, reconsidering, writing
The last part of the project was to write a reflection on their experience. The essays they wrote were incredible. My favorites were from the students most vocal about how strange the exercise had been. Every one of them said it was a worthwhile endeavor and that they appreciated the opportunity to talk, think and learn about this issue in greater depth.
My students have grown up with the perception that, almost by default, abortion is the only practical option for a pregnant teenager. Though the girls are still pro-choice (even if they are personally opposed to it—with the exception of one or two—all the girls believe that it should remain legal) and some of them would still choose abortion for themselves, all of them now know that abortion is not “the only way out” and that they have options…something that none of my lectures could ever quite get across.