When Brittany Mostiller was in her early 20s, she had two abortions. She didn’t want anyone to know. “I didn’t want folks knowing what I was going through,” she says, “especially because I didn’t feel like they would support me in any way.” And though she never regretted her decision, she says, she felt pressure to keep quiet. “Society tells us not to talk about it. The stigma and shame forces you into silence, although folks were still having abortions.”
Today, Mostiller, a program director at Chicago Abortion Fund, which assists low-income women seeking abortions, parents four daughters ages 5 to 16 — and talks about abortions, including her own, with them. “I want them to have all the options,” she says, “and to know they have autonomy to make their own decisions. I wish people could see the beauty in these uncomfortable conversations. That’s how you get comfortable — talking about it.”
If you’re the mother of a teen girl, you’ve parented your way around a block or two already.
You’ve likely had the sex talk, more than once and with substantially more information than your own mother probably doled out. But chances are good that you haven’t talked with your teen about abortion in detail.
“With sex,” says Michelle Oberman, a law professor who teaches abortion cases at Santa Clara University in California, “we’ve had time to think about what messages we want to send, we make fun of the sex talks our moms gave us. What we need to do is put abortion on that agenda.”
Though 1 in 4 women in the U.S. has had an abortion by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the stigma around ending a pregnancy is still so strong that, aside from those who occupy either end of the activist spectrum on the issue, few women talk about it openly. For a broad swath of that 1 in 4, in a society that often feels completely polarized by divergent views on abortion, it is a secret to keep.
“You have girls going out and getting abortions, girls of mothers who have had abortions, and no one is talking about it,” says Candice Norcott, an assistant professor and psychologist working in reproductive health care at the University of Chicago. “Everyone is ashamed of it. It’s this thing that happens and yet we’re still in back alleys emotionally.”
But with state abortion laws undergoing a seismic shift that is changing access to abortion procedures almost by the hour, many women are reconsidering that secrecy. Last week, Alabama’s legislature passed a law criminalizing abortion, with no exception for cases of rape or incest, and this month Georgia made headlines by becoming the fourth state this year to pass a “heartbeat law” disallowing abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. Supreme Court watchers believe a challenge to Roe v. Wade is inevitable.
In the face of those changes, a movement to discuss abortion more openly has emerged.
Online movements such as We Testify invite women to share their experiences publicly, and open discussions about abortion have made their way to social media as well. Publishing executive Cindi Leive, longtime editor of Glamour magazine, recently wrote an eloquent essay in the New York Times in which she went public on the subject of her own abortion and the decision to tell her 15-year-old daughter about it.
Though rates of both teen pregnancy and abortion are down, adolescents still account for 12% of U.S. abortions, and women aged 20 to 24 — which includes many college students — account for another 34 percent. In the face of widespread changes to access, leaving abortion discussions out of your parenting repertoire could leave you and your child in a situation you’re unprepared to deal with.
“It’s not a good idea to play this ‘not my child, it’ll never happen to my child’ game,” says Norcott. “Because then you don’t plan for ‘what if it does.’ ”
A shifting legal landscape, she points out, might also mean that parents should be prepared to participate in the process, should their child seek an abortion. “Especially if access is restricted, more teenagers are going to need their parents to be involved for a variety of reasons. You might need to travel out of state and stay at a hotel. And what teenager is going to be able to do that? You have to ask yourself: If a girl is going to go through these steps, what would you want your role to be as a parent?”
“All the more reason,” says Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, which helps low-income women access abortion, “to be building more healthy communication with your kids to help navigate those things. You can’t just pretend it’s a nonissue.”
Here’s how to open the door to that communication:
—Keep the discussion open. “To say, ‘If you get pregnant you’re definitely having an abortion because we’ve got goals’ is a mistake,” says Norcott. “If you are talking with your teenager about a pregnancy that’s unplanned and unwanted, giving your teenager the tools and information to make her own decision is key. To be able to say, ‘This isn’t what I want for you, but if it does happen, we can manage it together.’ This is a parenting strategy; it’s not just one thing. How can you present a relationship where communication is open? Where things break down is when a child feels like they have had an experience that they can’t share with parents.”
—Understand the present-day abortion landscape. “A lot of the conversations people are having,” says Hernandez, “it’s gloom and doom and back alleys. Today, medication abortion is the primary way that first-trimester abortions happen, so you take pills, and many people don’t know that.” Self-managed abortions via medication are becoming much more common, a trend that will undoubtedly grow if state abortion laws change. There is plenty of misinformation out there, so make sure you take time to educate yourself. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that the abortion itself is inherently traumatic,” says Norcott. “Research shows that to be false. More often than not, people are relieved when they get abortions.”
—You also should know the legal basics, so that you can answer questions your kids might have, says Oberman. “We’re already running across kids who think abortion is illegal, because of all the talk about the Supreme Court.”
And Hernandez points out that, though there is a lot of attention on how access to abortion may change in the near future, it’s important to understand that poor women have always faced high barriers to access. “We’ve been dealing with these issues forever.”
—Step outside the rhetoric. Oberman, who works at a Catholic college among “many people who have views that are very different from my own” finds embracing a range of opinions about abortion helps her reach a more nuanced dialogue with her students. “Underneath the surface you find a whole lot of gray.” If she were to insist on her own opinion, she says, “I’d be missing what they’re saying. They are saying that there is something morally complicated about abortion for them.”
—Talking through those nuances, rather than dismissing them, is what equips kids to make hard decisions for themselves. “You need to be really giving your kids tools to think through microscopically what the consequences are,” says Norcott.
“This is your chance to frame it morally,” says Oberman. “It’s also a chance to screw it up. Because if you come in and say ‘This is what I think’ and close down that conversation, they’re not going to come to you.”
—Don’t forget the boys. Hernandez, who parents two sons, ages 12 and 17 in Chicago, points out that teen girls shouldn’t be the only kids getting this message. “I do think it is something that should not only be talked about with daughters but with children in general.” With her own children, she says, “I try to put it in as simple terms as possible, but obviously for the 17-year-old it’s a more complex conversation because he’d have to think about what would he do if he were to impregnate someone.” Hernandez, who has also worked as an advocate for teen parents, makes it clear that she’s not pushing a particular outcome, should that circumstance arise. “He knows that either way he would have my support.”
—Recognize you won’t be the only source of information. “People this age don’t necessarily ask the right people the right questions,” says Oberman, “because they tend to get their information kind of randomly. Every mother wants her daughter to come to her if something’s wrong. But it’s also good to make sure they know about sources of good information other than you, because if something happens, they are likely going to go to the internet to look for information.” She recommends the Plan C or Safe2Choose websites as sources of very specific, accurate information on self-managed abortions.
—Don’t assume your own experience is the key to discussion. “For a lot of my friends who have kids this age and are starting to talk to them about their own abortions,” says Oberman, “it has been kind of a monologue. If what we’re expecting is that the way to get my daughter to talk to me is to tell her that I’ve had an abortion, well … maybe. But I’m not sure that’s the only way. What might work just as well is to say ‘There is a lot of confusion out there about what’s going on with abortion right now. If you’re ever in trouble or any of your friends are, I want you to come to me and we are going to work and find all the information we need, and figure out what is the right thing to do.”