Thursday 23 December 2010

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Guest Blog: A young person's take on sex education

Today we're very proud to hand over the EFC blog to Laura, a sixth form student from Bristol. Here's her insightful, eloquent take on sex education, young people and choice.

I never thought much about sex education before, but recently a number of events have occurred that have made me consider how important it really is. A number of weeks ago I had a discussion with a Christian friend about abortion. He’s quite vocally ‘pro-life’, very confident in his views and came to the discussion armed with lots of statistics and “evidence” for his position. I, on the other hand, was caught completely off guard, produced a couple of unintelligible splutters of incredulity, and completely failed to make any sort of coherent point in favour of choice. I left swiftly. He probably laughed.

Later on I managed to collect my thoughts in a more articulate manner and wrote a post for a blog aimed at teenage feminists, detailing all the things I should have told my friend about how important the right to choose is to me and to millions of women around the world. Although completely useless in terms of convincing him or anyone else I know, it was at least quite cathartic, and it made me feel a little better.

That was until I next had a conversation with this friend, when he told me about a planned display by the RS department at the sixth form centre I attend, on the subject of abortion, which would apparently include a graphic picture of an aborted fetus. This struck me as unquestionably wrong – teaching different religious positions on abortion is one thing, but using shock tactics like this to push a particular moral and political stance another entirely. So I contacted Education for Choice and told them about what was going on. The advice they offered me was really helpful, but what was most valuable to me was simply knowing that there are people out there who agree with and support me, and this gave me the confidence I needed to voice my concerns more publically.

Since I first contacted Education for Choice looking for guidance, the plans for an aborted fetus picture in the RS classroom do not seem to have come to fruition. There is a display board dealing with abortion, but this currently consists mostly of a few hand-made posters. They aren’t entirely accurate - and I’ve taken to writing my own helpful corrections on post-it notes and pasting them on top of inaccurate information – but they at least seem to be avoiding taking on an obvious moral stance. I also put a few information postcards from Education for Choice in the library, which seem to have been of some use to my fellow students (they’re all gone at any rate, and I’ll be bringing in my remaining stash next term to make sure that everyone gets access to the information they need).

There have been a number of other problems, mainly to do with the influence of a ‘pro-life’ church group at the school, who have taken it upon themselves to spread their own message of abstinence and forced pregnancy, but I think my peers are sensible enough to know what information is and isn’t real. According to them, abortion is always wrong, premarital sex is “perverse”, and, from what I’ve heard, the morality of contraception is a bit iffy too. I thought they could benefit from a bit of pro-choice love as well, so I sent them a nice letter and some Education for Choice information sheets on religion and abortion. Surprising, they haven’t replied.

All this has got me thinking about abortion and choice, but also about the wider issue of the provision of sex education in schools. My own sex education was patchy, but definitely better than a lot of young people get. My year 6 Primary School class was shown a series of videos from which I can remember an animation of a band of naked cartoon characters engaging in a joyous, bouncing activity that I can only describe as a “frolic”. To the 11 year old me, who had no prior knowledge of such things, this experience was just confusing. Next there came a succession of lessons and presentations in years 8 and 9 which consisted, most memorably, of a very scary, very explicit slideshow of STIs and the classic put-the-condom-on-the-much-larger-than-life-rubber-penis game. This particular lesson descended into anarchy and the only knowledge I acquired was that condoms make quite good water bombs. So, all in all, not great.

When I think about the abstinence-only programmes that are so popular in the USA and how overtly damaging these can be, I think I’ve gotten away quite lightly. But still I think young people in the UK are being badly let down by a system that is inconsistent, largely unregulated and at times virtually non-existent. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see where things went wrong for me in terms of my knowledge of sex and relationships and there are so many things that I now wish I had been told:

1. It’s okay to have sex. Seriously, do what you want with your body. You know best. If it feels right, go for it. If you don’t want to or you’re not really sure, it’s probably best if you don’t just yet. Nobody else should tell you what you should or should not do with your own body. If you want to have sex, that’s fine. If you want to scrawl the words to a Shakespeare sonnet over your body or roll naked in ketchup, that’s okay too! Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s anything wrong or sinful about wanting to have sex or explore your body. There is no right or wrong way to have sex, so, as long as both you and your partner are having a good time, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

2. It’s okay not to have sex. If you want to wait until you’re older, or until you get married, or just until it feels right, you should do that. There can be a lot of pressure from friends and from the media to have sex, but try to stay true to yourself and stick to what you want to do, not to what someone else says you should be doing. It’s not weird not to be interested in sex, and you do have the right to say no.

3. You can say no. And unfortunately, sometimes you may not be listened to. Sometimes you may not feel able to say no as loudly as you wish you could, or push someone away as hard as you feel you ought to, but it’s always wrong for someone to try to force or coerce you into having sex with them, and it’s never your fault. There are organisations you can contact if something like this happens to you, and you will be listened to and respected. But you never owe someone sex, no matter what they’ve done or said to you and a good person will always respect your decision when you say you don’t want to sleep with them.

4. You can say yes…and then no. You are perfectly within your rights to say yes to sex and then part way through to say no, and any decent person will stop having sex with you immediately. Likewise, you can say yes to some sexual activities and no to others, even if you have engaged in them with your partner before.

5. If you become pregnant, there are people who will support you, and there is more than one option available to you. A good pregnancy advice centre will never tell you what you should do upon finding yourself pregnant. You have a right to open, unbiased information about a variety of pregnancy options, from parenthood to adoption or abortion. You should never have to feel that you are obliged to choose any path you don’t feel comfortable with.

There is a common misconception that the effectiveness of sex education programmes can be measured by the amount of young people who do or do not contract an STI or become pregnant. However, I would argue that, whilst these are very important indicators of whether a programme is effective in educating young people, they are a small portion of what it is important to convey to teenagers about sex. Instead, sex education should be focused on empowering young people to make informed decisions about our bodies, to convey to our partners what we do and don’t want from sex, to consider what sex means to us and to those around us, and to allow us to explore our own feelings about sex and relationships. I think we would find that if sex education aimed to deliver these things, we would discover a generation of young people who not only had the knowledge to protect themselves against STIs and unplanned pregnancy, but were also secure in themselves and their sexuality.

Monday 20 December 2010

'Mothers don't have abortions'

Every Monday EFC busts myths and takes names, cutting through the misinformation, disinformation, and straight up nonsense to bring you the facts.

Many people assume that women who have abortions are young, single, and childless. Actually, about half (49%) of abortions are performed on women who have already had at least one live birth. A similar figure has been suggested for the number of Irish women travelling abroad to access abortion in this recent article.

Although many anti-choice campaigners prefer to picture the woman who has an abortion as childless, of course some women who have children do go on to end subsequent pregnancies. In fact, UK abortion law includes “risk to existing children” as a legal ground on which to have an abortion.

Monday 13 December 2010

Lesbian women and gay men don’t need information about pregnancy and abortion

Every Monday EFC busts myths and takes names, cutting through the misinformation, disinformation, and straight up nonsense to bring you the facts

Pregnancy isn’t just something which affects people who identify as heterosexual. Those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual can also experience pregnancy, whether planned or unplanned. In fact, a Canadian study of LGB youth found that they were more likely than their heterosexual peers to report having been pregnant or having caused a pregnancy.

Behaviour doesn’t always follow on logically from identity. As the young advocates on Youth Resource point out, ‘self-identifying as lesbian or gay does not mean that someone will never have sex with a member of the other sex.’ A lesbian woman or gay man may choose to have sex with someone of the opposite sex in order to become pregnant/cause pregnancy; they may feel under pressure to do so; or they may, at that point in their lives, find themselves sexually attracted to someone of the opposite sex. ‘People who are questioning their sexual orientation may experiment in an effort to determine their sexual identity’ or to present themselves to others as heterosexual. Of course all women can become pregnant as a result of rape.

It’s important not to make assumptions about someone’s sexual activity or reproductive health based on their sexual identity or preference.

Anyone who finds themselves pregnant, however they identify, deserves honest, impartial information and advice about their options. Since 1 in 3 women in this country will have an abortion during their reproductive lives it’s really something we all need to know about.

Auditing abortion education

Education For Choice has been trying to get hold of teachers in schools across England to find out what they're teaching about abortion, how and what outside visiting speakers they're using to deliver it. Teachers - being busy, seeing PSHE as a low priority, fearing that we are going to publish their good practice and get Daily Mailed, or tell them off for their bad practice - have been poor respondents.

That's why we're asking people to let us know what they can about what's being taught in UK schools.
Here are some quotes left on our A Word blog about people's experiences of how school handles the topic. I don't think these experiences are out of the ordinary:

Like my sons 'community' school which is run by a headmistress and head of governers who both attend the same local church and give voice to every fundamentalist roadshow and preacher that passes by. My objection is people like this who use their own private personally held beliefs to inform school policy. The no opt out is really the only way you will get anything like this past people in control who have a religious axe to grind.
Comment on 'A Word' Blog

I finished secondary school a couple of years ago. Quite a lot of girls were pregnant whilst at school, and everyone knew at least one person who had an abortion, so they knew the 'reality'. We never had people come in to the school to talk to us about abortion and it didn't come up until year 11. That was only because we needed to know religious views on abortion for our RE exam! It was nothing to do with giving us information that may affect us in life - and I think this is one of the issues - schools have become focused on exams and not the emotional/other sides of life.
Comment on 'A Word' blog

Everyone out there has an experience of abortion education we want to hear about. It will probably fall into about five broad categories:

  1. We were taught nothing about pregnancy decision-making and abortion
  2. We were only taught about it in RE and in terms of different religious perspectives, but with no practical content about relationships, decision-making, contraception etc
  3. We were taught about it in RE/PSHE by having outside speakers come in from anti-abortion organisations, giving us questionable information/complete misinformation and/or showing us gory images and film footage
  4. We were taught about it in a debate style where we had a speaker from 'one side' and then from the 'other side' to talk about the moral issues
  5. We were taught about it by our SRE/PSHE teacher and we looked at it in the context of relationships, decision-making, risk taking, contraception

You could send us your experiences as a student, teacher or parent about what is happening in your/your child's school.

If you are happy to let us know your school's name and borough that would be great. Just so we know that all our feedback isn't from the same school!

This kind of feedback however anecdotal is important - especially in the absence of a more comprehensive study of what's happening out there.

It would be great if you could send this email out far and wide to get as many responses as possible

If you want your comment to be anonymous you could leave it as a comment on this blog. If you are happy for us to be in touch or want your feedback to be less public please email us with your story

Monday 6 December 2010

Women don't really die of abortion any more

Around the world a variety of unsafe methods are still used to end unwanted pregnancies in countries where it is either illegal or inaccessible. The Alan Guttmacher Institute has documented the incidence of unsafe abortion worldwide and names some common methods including:
• Drinking turpentine, bleach or tea made with livestock manure
• Inserting herbal preparations into the vagina or cervix
• Placing foreign bodies, such as a stick, coat hanger or chicken bone, into the uterus
• Jumping from the top of stairs or a roof
All of these methods carry a high risk of poisoning the woman (ingested preparations) or perforating her uterus (surgical methods) which can lead to infection or heavy bleeding and death, or serious injury (self-inflicted violence – jumping or enduring beating).

The World Health Organisation estimates that 70,000 women a year die as a direct result of unsafe abortion, making it a significant contributory factor to maternal mortality worldwide.

It is expected that rates of injury and death from unsafe abortion will begin to decrease with the increasing availability of abortion medication Mifepristone and Misoprostol. These medicines are used in legal abortion services around the world, but are also increasingly available to women in countries where abortion is illegal via the internet or – in the case of Misoprostol – over the counter in some countries where it is sold to treat stomach ulcers, its original intended use.

However, we know that there are many unscrupulous people willing to sell fake medicines or sell them in the wrong dosage to vulnerable and desperate women. The only website known to EFC which provides medical consultation and provides safe doses of medication to women is Women on Web which will not sell medication to women in countries where it is safely and legally available.

Women in countries where abortion is not yet legal need to be aware that they may be committing a crime if they buy abortion medication. For example, customs officers in Ireland are known, regularly, to seize parcels containing abortion medication.

So, while medication exists that can be safely used by women in their own homes, legal barriers to accessing this medication – and serious consequences for those caught – remain an obstacle to safe abortion in countries with restrictive laws.

In some countries where abortion is legal, large numbers of women still undertake risky unsafe abortions because access is difficult for poorer women or those in remote rural areas. In fact a poor woman in India is much more likely to risk of dying from unsafe abortion than a rich woman in Ireland who can travel to mainland UK for a safe abortion.

Monday 29 November 2010

Abortion is a modern phenomenon

Every Monday EFC busts myths and takes names, cutting through the misinformation, disinformation, and straight up nonsense to bring you the facts.

It is often assumed that abortion is a modern phenomenon, resulting from liberal sexual practices that have become every day in the post-pill, post-legalised abortion world. In fact there is documented evidence in the Ebers Papyrus of abortion taking place as far back as 1550BC in ancient Egypt and stories of abortion in China that reach back 5,000 years. Just as today, some of these abortions were carried out for social and emotional reasons and others to avoid obstetric emergencies or other health reasons.

Aristotle wrote (384-322 BC) ‘When couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun’

Depictions of abortion in Ancient Greece are quite detailed and include descriptions of a range of different methods from self-induced abortion through strenuous activity or ingesting specific substances, to surgical abortions, similar to the Dilatation and Curettage abortion still sometimes used today.

Over centuries ‘wise women’, midwives and herbalists have prescribed a range of abortifacient herbs and potions some of which may have been more effective than others. In the years immediately prior to the legalisation of abortion in the UK women used a range of dangerous methods to try to self-induce abortion including drinking gin and taking a scalding hot bath, or injecting toxic solutions into the uterus. Safer abortion was available to women who were able to pay to see a psychiatrist who could give approval for the abortion to go ahead on mental health grounds.

Friday 26 November 2010

A Lie is not the 'other side of the argument' it is just a lie

Here is the main substance of a presentation given by Lisa to the Westminster Health Forum on Teenage Pregnancy 16th March 2010

There has been a lot of discussion about issues around faith and SRE in the last few weeks as a result of the SRE passage through Parliament and I really wanted to make the case here that ethics and evidence are not two separate things, they have to be addressed in parallel and that means that people addressing factual information have to think about the context for it and people addressing faith issues have to, HAVE TO be giving evidence-based information.

We don’t believe that anyone should appoint themselves as a filter or a censor of evidence-based information around sex and relationships education. We believe that all young people should be able to access absolutely accurate information. They expect the professionals and adults in their lives to provide that and we should all be committed to doing that. I think there is sometimes an idea that in certain aspects of SRE, certainly the aspects Education For Choice addresses i.e. pregnancy decision-making and abortion, that it's all so controversial and political that there isn't evidence-based information, it’s all just a matter of opinion. But that's nonsense - the fact is that there are good quality and peer reviewed studies from all around the world that provide us with accurate information.

In terms of faith and values, I don’t really need to say much. Lots of people feel it’s a really important part of what they do, and who they are, but it’s also really fascinating. Young people are really interested in all these kinds of questions. They want to know what other people think and where they get their views from. They want the opportunity to explore those - to compare views, to ask themselves – where do my ideas come from? From me? Are they my personal opinions, or from my family, my community, my peers? How do those views impact on me and my ability to make decisions about my life? Those are things that everyone is really interested in and I don’t think that health professionals who go into schools should be shy and kind of try and veer away from those kind of discussions, because they are really interesting and really useful.

I am not going to talk in any length about the barriers to quality education, but clearly there are problems. There are teachers who have lack of time, lack of skills or confidence who sometimes resort to using outside speakers who aren’t suitable, who aren’t bringing evidence-based information and who are there to promote a very particular perspective, that’s not helpful for young people. There is sometimes a lack of clarity about the need for evidence-based information or where they can access that. We find that there is a lack of understanding of the term balance and that is something I will talk a little bit about because in the DFES guidance on SRE in the year 2000 which was actually very good guidance, it was recommended that schools do not approach topics within SRE like abortion in a really polarising way in which you give two sides of a very extreme argument, that is not helpful for young people’s health and it is not something that makes young people feel safe within a classroom situation.

There is another aspect to this discussion about balance, and this is a bit brutal but I hope you will forgive me. This is a quote from my favourite television series of the 21st century (The Wire) and I think it really sums it up – ‘a lie is not the other side of an argument, it’s just a lie’. We cannot give people misinformation and say, well that’s just my point of view. We can say 'this is my point of view and these are the facts associated with it', but we have to be clear what the difference is between the two and I think we can do that in a really simple way.

Look at this. If I was a politics teacher I would be very happy for the students in my class to leave the room all agreeing that Gordon Brown is a very handsome man. We might all disagree with that, or we might all agree with that, or we might have different opinions, there is no factual framework, there is no criteria for handsome against which we can judge that. It really is just a matter of opinion. But if my politics students leave the room believing that Gordon Brown is the King of England, I have failed as an educator, they are wrong. There’s actual facts and evidence that tell me that he isn't the King he’s the Prime Minister (or was at the time this was written).

So how does this relate to SRE. I will give you an example. If a student leaves my classroom believing that abortion is wrong, that is completely fine. There is no objective criteria by which I can say to that student abortion is right or abortion is wrong, it’s clearly a matter of personal opinion and values. However, if a student of mine leaves the classroom believing that abortion will make her infertile, that is misinformation and I have failed as an educator.

Doing exercises like this with a class of young people in SRE is a really good way to help them untangle the difference between something that is based on opinion or values, and something that is based on fact and it is a really, really important thing that we need to do.

I am just going to finish by saying, don’t be shy of exploring values if you are a health educator and please, please do not fall short of giving accurate evidence-based information if you are a faith educator.