Working in abortion education and outreach in the U.K. and the U.S. – What’s the Diff?

// 8 April 2010

Jennifer is a Trainer and Project Coordinator at Education For Choice, which is guest blogging all this month.

My teenage years were spent in the Midwestern American city of Milwaukee. I keenly felt the effects of a lack of sex education and considerable obstruction to sexual health advice and services. I became an advocate and volunteer for reproductive health rights and dreamed of working full-time for issues relating to reproductive and sexual health. It proved very difficult to make a full-time career in this field not only because of the conservative U.S. culture that makes any discussion of sex controversial, but because there is so little funding for sex and relationships education (abstinence-only-until-marriage proselytising is not SRE) and sexual health services. Thus, I had to make myself content with working on research to reduce health disparities (an impossible task in a country with no guaranteed right to healthcare), dabbling in policies to implement routine HIV testing, and spending a lot of my free time working with the local Planned Parenthood affiliate.

Planned Parenthood is not only a national provider of reproductive health services (including abortions) in the U.S., but they provide sex education in schools, fundraise for their clinical and educational services, and have a separate advocacy and political arm. Still, it bothered me how much couldn’t be said or done in schools and in public. To me, it’s good public health policy for condoms to be available to students free of charge in schools. But there was no way such a program could be implemented where I lived and worked in Milwaukee and later on in Chicago. I was also bothered by how few schools and thus students had access to comprehensive sex education. Planned Parenthood was often viewed as a polarizing organisation so their educational reach into schools was minimal.

There were many reasons for wanting to move to the UK but having the opportunity to support sexual health as a career choice was a huge motivator. I knew that the UK had legalized abortion before the U.S. had (1967 vs. 1973). I knew that abortions were available for free through the NHS (government-provided abortions haven’t been an option for women in the U.S. since the passing of the Hyde Amendment, and they won’t be funded in the U.S.’s new healthcare scheme). I knew that – although patchy in provision – sex education did take place in schools in Britain and that the government did not provide funding for abstinence education. I knew that women could go to a reproductive health clinic here and not have to shield their eyes as they made their way past protestors bearing graphic signs of aborted fetuses. I also knew that abortion doctors in the UK generally did not fear for their life and did not have to show up for work wearing a bullet-proof vest. This is a culture and a country that I wanted to live and work in.

I found myself at Education For Choice nine months after moving to the UK. Sometimes I still can’t believe that I get to discuss in education and training that abortion is just as valid and supported an option for young women – or any women – as carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth is. When I accepted the job, some leftover American shame hung over me and I was nervous to tell colleagues and friends what I was going to be doing. Those who know me closely know how central to my morals reproductive justice is but living in the U.S., I always felt I had to keep my belief in a woman’s right to decide what to do with her reproductivity on the down low. I didn’t expect people to support the work that I and EFC do so enthusiastically. I got an email from my supervisor immediately after resigning, stating how glad she was that there was a charity doing abortion education because it was important work. And while abortions are available for free through the NHS, the UK has a significant struggle ahead in trying to make SRE statutory in schools (we will address PSHE being dropped from the Children, Schools and Families Bill during this pre-election wash-up period as well as related current events in future posts), increasing access to contraception and abortion, destigmatising abortion, and keeping U.S. anti-abortion funds and ideologies out of the health, education, and social services here. I’m proud to help with these efforts by working for EFC, supporting every young person’s right to facts on abortion, whoever they are, whoever they ask, wherever they go.

Comments From You

Kate@EFC // Posted 8 April 2010 at 2:57 pm

Kate from EFC here- just wanted to remind everyone to keep all comments related to the original post. As per commenters’ discussion following the first EFC post, comments that derail by discussing the general morality of abortion will not be posted.

We at EFC will respond to comments only where more factual information is needed or where we can help clarify.

Rock on Jennifer!


Politicalguineapig // Posted 8 April 2010 at 3:28 pm

You guys need any help? I’m another American woman who’d love to live in a country as rational as England.

I think part of the reason you don’t have a problem is because you had the good taste to kick out the Puritans.

gadgetgal // Posted 8 April 2010 at 3:42 pm

Hi Jennifer – I’m glad you’re here too, it’s a far cry from what we all had to deal with in the US so far as reproductive rights and services are concerned! I’m glad you wrote this post, because sometimes (since I’ve lived in this country for so long now) I forget what it was like living somewhere where I COULDN’T take those services for granted because we just didn’t have them! Keep up the good work, education so people can make the right choice for themselves (whatever that choice may be) is incredibly important.

polly // Posted 11 April 2010 at 5:35 pm

I’m glad you found your experiences are positive so far, but it does seem to me that the UK has a very long way to go with regard to educating and empowering young women, and even though abortions ARE available on the NHS, the truth is that provision is patchy. So I don’t think we can take abortion rights for granted in the UK.

The situation with parents being able to withdraw fifteen year olds from sex education because they are ‘children’ is just ludicrous. A student could be fifteen years and 364 days old, and legally able to consent to sex the next day, but they aren’t able to make up their own mind on whether to participate in school sex education classes or not? The simple fact is that parents who withdraw their children from these classes are also far more likely to be the kind of parents who aren’t going to give their children good information on sex – so these students need good quality information from schools, even more than most. I know that when I was at school (with dire sex education), a lot of students ended up having unsafe sex in their early teens without even knowing properly what was going on.

Ally // Posted 11 April 2010 at 10:13 pm

@ Polly: I don’t know when/where you went to school but sex ed is usually taught in year 9 to 13/14 year olds.

sianmarie // Posted 12 April 2010 at 5:05 pm

apologies if i’m putting words in your mouth polly – but ally i think what polly means is that parents have the right to withdraw their children from sex ed classes up to the age of 15. after 16 they cannot prevent their children from participating in sex ed classes. i agree with polly, it is completely unfair to prevent children from having full and comprehensive sex ed because of their parents refusing to allow them access to education.

Lisa Ansell // Posted 12 April 2010 at 10:16 pm

I think my worry here, is that although abortion rights are better than the US- a woman’s autonomy is not defined, and we are seeing a massive attempt to attack our ‘rights’ through cutting the 24 week limit. One of the main political parties has announced they are bringing faith into politics, in the way the Republicans do- and am a bit worried that actually, our abortion rights are a bit fragile.

I hope not, and hope logic and reason prevail-but there is possibility it won’t.

polly // Posted 13 April 2010 at 7:40 pm

What Sian Marie said. I’m referring to the linked article which says that parents can withdraw 15 year olds from sex education classes.

Horry // Posted 13 April 2010 at 9:50 pm

I love the Education for Choice website – it’s a good reminder that while it’s all very well to push for changes in law, in the meantime immediate, practical help for women is still essential.

I was in the US a few years ago and remember being amazed at how polarised the debate there was. I even read a magazine article which described camping holidays where pro- and anti-choicers got the chance to make friends “over the divide”, as though taking a position on abortion was equivalent to taking sides over Israel or Northern Ireland. It’s incredibly sad, and distances the debate even further from real lives, merging it into a more general culture war in which, while you might find it in your heart to embrace your “enemy”, your beliefs remain all the more entrenched.

The climate in the UK is better, but I agree with Lisa that significant problems are still there, just that they’re different. Like most people I find it easy to remain friends with people who take a different position on abortion, but that’s probably because we don’t tend to talk about it once we’re aware we don’t agree. When we do debate, we faff around talking about viability rather than life, death and, god forbid, pregnancy itself. In UK politics, the whole issue has become one of twiddling around with figures, never having to answer the essential question as to whether a woman should retain her own bodily integrity throughout her whole life, and if not, whether anyone can possibly believe in equality for women at all. Perhaps if we did engage with such questions, the debate over here would be much more polarised too and yes, we might risk losing everything. But our victories are so uneasy, constantly chipped away at because they’re not based on the principle that all women and men are equal. They’re based on the idea that we should feel sorry for some women, in some situations, and hence “let them” have abortions if they really, really need them, not because it’s not our business to decide whether an individual should carry a pregnancy to term or not anyhow. Sorry if it looks like I’m just grumbling here, especially as I really don’t know what the answer is – sometimes I think “groups like Abortion Rights should really force the debate further, be on the offensive, make people really understand that it’s not about generosity but essential rights” (isn’t that kind of how Roe v Wade works? [or maybe doesn’t work…]). Other times I think we have to stay quiet, maintain an unstable truce, knowing that we have to be defensive, gradually losing as time limits are constantly challenged, but clinging on because it’s better than nothing, certainly better than the situation in the US and other countries. But at least in all this groups like Education for Choice exist and make such a real difference to individuals.

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