I was surprised as I read this Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Caitlin Flanagan. I doubt it was her intent, but I found a very strong argument in favor of abstinence as the preferred attitude toward extra-marital sex. She argues that there is a double standard related to the burdens of teenage pregnancy that falls more heavily on girls than on boys.
. . . the last scene [of “Juno”] brought tears to my eyes. To see a young daughter, faced with the terrible fact of a pregnancy, unscathed by it and completely her old self again was magical.
And that’s why “Juno” is a fairy tale. As any woman who has ever chosen (or been forced) [to give a child up for adoption] can tell you, surrendering a baby whom you will never know comes with a steep and lifelong cost. Nor is an abortion psychologically or physically simple. It is an invasive and frightening procedure, and for some adolescent girls it constitutes part of their first gynecological exam. I know grown women who’ve wept bitterly after abortions, no matter how sound their decisions were. How much harder are these procedures for girls, whose moral and emotional universe is just taking shape?
Of course those who disapprove of abstinence education also want to prevent unwanted pregnancies. On that everyone is agreed. The problem that they ignore is the fundamental fact that the natural result of sexual activity is pregnancy. We can lower the chances, but we can’t eliminate them. Regardless of what they may wish, there are side effects to abortion as well.
It would be helpful for the pro-life groups to admit that their preference for adoption over abortion is not without side-effects either. The reality is that regardless of the course taken afterwards, the universal result of unwanted pregnancies is emotional pain and suffering for the mother if not for anyone else.
Ms. Flanagan wonders if there is a way to level the difference in the burdens between teenage fathers who can escape the consequences in many cases and teenage mothers who can’t. Even her own words seem to promise that the answer is no.
Pregnancy robs a teenager of her girlhood. This stark fact is one reason girls used to be so carefully guarded and protected — in a system that at once limited their horizons and safeguarded them from devastating consequences. The feminist historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has written that “however prudish and ‘uptight’ the Victorians were, our ancestors had a deep commitment to girls.”
We, too, have a deep commitment to girls, and ours centers not on protecting their chastity, but on supporting their ability to compete with boys, to be free — perhaps for the first time in history — from the restraints that kept women from achieving on the same level. Now we have to ask ourselves this question: Does the full enfranchisement of girls depend on their being sexually liberated? And if it does, can we somehow change or diminish among the very young the trauma of pregnancy, the occasional result of even safe sex?
The trauma that will always accompany unwanted pregnancy has become more common as we first accept that “boys will be boys” and then we glorify that attitude, excusing (and demeaning) young men as being unable to control themselves. We have followed that moral irresponsibility by trying to teach our girls to be boys in adopting a callous attitude about sex. Sexual activity was never meant to be taken lightly which is why it was meant to be reserved for a marriage relationship. Any other relationship and it does not matter what precautions you take, you are flirting with the consequences of pregnancy and STDs.
This is why we must teach young women to guard themselves and we must teach young men to guard the young women they care about. This teaching is not meant to be done publicly. It should be undertaken within the setting of family. No other setting can ever be fully satisfactory for the intimacy of discussion that is warranted on this subject.