This is a dispiriting moment to be a supporter of reproductive rights. Courtesy of a leaked draft opinion, we know the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that established a right to have an abortion in 1973, this month. If Roe is indeed overturned, it’s likely that abortion will be swiftly outlawed in nearly half of US states.
Despite the acrimonious political discourse, a majority of Americans support the abortion rights enshrined in Roe, and the many parents and caregivers who are pro-abortion rights should recognize the important influence they have over the next generation of voters. Talking about abortion with kids and young people is a long-term project that helps secure the future of reproductive justice.
You might be inclined to hold off on discussing such a complex topic with your kids, but avoiding these conversations is counterproductive. “Research shows that kids are getting exposed to these ideas,” says Melinda Wenner Moyer, a journalist who covers science-based parenting and wrote the book How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes. If we don’t talk to our kids about hard topics like abortion, “then we’re just essentially ensuring that they’re hearing about them from other people.” Parents may find that what is being communicated to their kids is inaccurate or doesn’t align with their family’s values. “It’s better if you can start with a blank slate,” Wenner Moyer says.
That doesn’t make it easy. Wenner Moyer was initially hesitant to talk to her kids — ages 7 and 11 — about abortion during this most recent news cycle, but reminds parents that they don’t need to prepare for a huge, formal-feeling lecture. “That’s really not how we should be approaching this,” she says. “We should be having these little conversations regularly.”
Start with familiar concepts and add details over time
Consent and bodily autonomy — who you can touch and who can touch you — are concepts that are regularly introduced to young kids. Caregivers and health care providers talk about consent with toddlers quite naturally at home and at medical visits. Good touch/bad touch programs have existed in preschools for decades, and the latest National Sex Education Standards (a set of guidelines developed by health care professionals and sex educators) state that kids should be able to “define bodily autonomy and personal boundaries” by the end of second grade. In some ways, consent is baked into childhood through asking to share toys, playing together, and learning to take turns.
Abortion rights, then, can be brought up as a natural extension of the bodily autonomy discussion you are probably already having, says Wenner Moyer. It’s an approach she used with her kids, building on conversations they’d already had to explain that every person gets to choose what they’re comfortable doing with their body, and that includes whether they want to be pregnant. With her older child, she added that banning abortion makes the procedure less safe and less accessible.
Discuss the concept of family
Parents might fear that a child’s likely follow-up question will relate to themselves and their parents’ decision to have them, says Wenner Moyer. But it can be a moment to show how important choice is in family formation.
Parenthood itself can be a radicalizing force around reproductive rights as the full physical, emotional, mental, and financial weight of the choices set in; in fact, nearly 60 percent of people who have abortions are already parents, according to statistics from the Guttmacher Institute. This is an opportunity to share with your kids how much parenting requires.
You can tell them, “As your mom, I know that being a mom is such an important job, but it is also really, really hard,” Wenner Moyer says. “There are so many things that I have to be able to juggle and so many resources I need to have. I wouldn’t want a woman or person with a uterus to have to have a baby if they didn’t feel that they were ready for it or they didn’t feel they had the resources they needed.”
Renee Bracey Sherman — the founder of We Testify, an advocacy organization dedicated to the support of people who have abortions — knows firsthand how abortion can be a positive part of a family’s origin story. Years after starting her work in abortion rights advocacy, Bracey Sherman learned about her mother’s own abortion story, of a pregnancy she wasn’t ready to have in a relationship she no longer wanted to stay in. “People say all the time to me, ‘What would you do if your mom had aborted you?’” Bracey Sherman says. “And I’m like, ‘No, actually my mom had an abortion and that’s why I’m here.’”
“There are a lot of us,” she adds, whose “lives have been made possible because people in our lives were able to have abortions.”
Show how abortion is connected to other big issues
“The ability to control how you form family is so critical for everybody,” says Joia Crear-Perry, a board-certified OB-GYN and the founder of the National Birth Equity Collaborative. “This has never just been about controlling a fetus. It has been about controlling women, human beings, people with the capacity to live freely.”
It’s important to name the racism and sexism at work in the world, says Amanda Calhoun, a resident in child and adolescent psychiatry at Yale University, because kids are exposed to and understand these concepts as early as 4 or 5. They notice people being treated differently based on race and gender; avoiding calling it out can be more confusing and frightening to kids, especially those who are suffering from it, she says, because it sends the message that it’s something to keep hidden. In addition, without guidance, kids can erroneously interpret that there’s a good reason for the difference in treatment, which isn’t the message caregivers want to send.
Wenner Moyer talked with her kids about how abortion restrictions are rooted in sexism: the idea that women shouldn’t have full bodily autonomy. Anti-abortion activists are “saying women shouldn’t be in charge of their bodies, or that they can’t make decisions for themselves,” she explains, “and that’s not fair, and that’s not true.”
Women throughout history have terminated their early pregnancies, but those generally weren’t thought of as abortions if they occurred before “quickening” — noticeable fetal movement. Crucially, pregnant people themselves were historically the arbiters of that information. This singular purview was eroded with the advent of reliable pregnancy tests and ultrasound technology, which enabled independent confirmation and surveillance of pregnancies.
Abortion is also not just a women’s issue. “Many very famous and very powerful men have been able to move on in their careers because they paid for, participated in, or know about a woman who had an abortion,” Crear-Perry points out.
One way racism is at work is in how public discussion of reproductive rights is largely relegated to abortion legality; this leaves aside issues of geographical and financial access, in addition to a whole host of other complementary rights and needs. “Roe is a floor, not a ceiling,” says Crear-Perry. The original framework of reproductive justice, a term coined in 1994 by the collective SisterSong, was about “the ability to have children, not have children, to parent children in safe and sustainable environments, and to have personal bodily autonomy,” she explains. This intersectional approach works toward progress on a range of issues including adequate prenatal care, wages that can support a family, and comprehensive sex education.
People of color have systematically been denied first the legal ability and then the resources to build their families since the country’s founding. Today, abortion restrictions disproportionally fall on Black and Hispanic pregnant people, who are less likely to have the money and insurance access to obtain abortions in other ways. “The truth is, these laws have always been about poor and marginalized people,” says Crear-Perry. “If you have resources, these laws are irrelevant.”
Share all your pregnancy stories if you can
“Abortion is an endpoint that happens frequently in pregnancies, and it doesn’t always mean elective,” says Crear-Perry. The medical definition of the term includes stillbirths and miscarriages, which are common — as many as a quarter of all pregnancies are miscarried. While restrictive abortion laws, which often make managing such pregnancy complications difficult and dangerous, purport to only regulate elective procedures, the line between “elective” and “medically necessary” has always been thin and unstable; in fact, some doctors argue that it’s a distinction that shouldn’t be drawn at all. Abortion is something many people do, for lots of reasons. Telling your children about a lost, but wanted, pregnancy helps dispel the perception that every fertilized egg will turn into a healthy baby.
Telling the stories of desired abortions is also key: Overwhelmingly, people who get abortions do not regret them. The Turnaway Study followed 1,000 women over 10 years, some of whom had abortions and some of whom were turned away for being past their local clinic’s gestational limit. The researchers found that 95 percent of the subjects who’d had an abortion reported that the abortion was the right decision for them more than five years after the procedure.
Sharing personal narratives of abortion can be difficult owing to the stigma around them, and restrictive state laws could make doing so even more fraught. But there’s value, Bracey Sherman says, in articulating positive relationships with abortions.
“Our families are created, in part, by abortion,” Bracey Sherman says. “How do we actually move to a conversation about abortion being an act of love and a decision that people make to build their families and live their lives?”
It’s a shift that can take place one family at a time, starting with yours.
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