Current Events Family Youth Issues

Abortion Stories

As Alabama was passing its total abortion ban, a friend posted a CNN clip that I didn’t watch in which a guest or the anchor seemed to imply that a fetus was akin to an organ in a woman’s body that she might choose do with as she pleases. My friend posed the following question with this post: “Will one of my SANE pro-abortion friends explain this to me?” When no one responded, she took this to mean that her “pro-abortion” friends could not answer something so ridiculous and therefore this meant that they knew deep in their hearts how evil their pro-choice position was. When I tried to go back to the post later, in order to watch the clip and to decide whether to respond, the post was gone. Perhaps things got ugly…Truly, so little good comes from engaging in such conversations on Facebook or Twitter. Against my better judgment, I do engage sometimes but it generally ends with me ghosting out before or after someone dismisses my thinking while telling me how much I mean to them.  Pointless all the way around.  Maybe that is why no one “sane” responded to my friend’s post…

But everyday there is a new threat to reproductive rights, including the choice to abort, in this country. Yesterday, saw the most restrictive law yet move forward in Alabama. Many states now have only one abortion provider and in some cases none.  Yet, the majority of the U.S. population supports the right to abortion in all or most cases.

My opinions have been largely consistent since I was in about the seventh or eighth grade, approximately four years after Roe was decided. As abortion became a possibility in every state, the public debate came with it. I remember the cover of TIME or maybe NEWSWEEK with a picture of a fetus in utero promoting an article that examined the “when does life begin” question.  I read it and decided that should I ever need to, as long as I could have an early abortion meaning before 10 weeks or so, I would do it. That was my own thinking and for a long time I kept that opinion to myself.

My parents each approached the topic of an early pregnancy differently.  My mother told me around this time period, meaning when I was about 13, that if I became pregnant she would want me to carry the pregnancy to term. I remember the scene in great detail. I was in her room. It was summer and I was wearing my favorite multi-colored short shorts. The memory is probably so clear because I was terrified. Not because I was sexually active, but because I believed that it was up to me to never make a mistake; that if I did, I would have no choice over what would happen to me; and that if I wanted to have a choice, I could not turn to my mother for help. I am sure she would be devastated to hear me say that.  And perhaps those were the beliefs of a young adolescent that did not reflect what really might have happened.  But beliefs of teens are often not articulated and as such parents have no way to correct them.

Several years later, perhaps when I was leaving for college, my father gave me a very different message. He wrote me a letter tucked in the trunk of my car where he often left me a little extra cash. In it, he told me to avoid pregnancy at any cost during my college years. I was shocked by this part of the letter. I never talked about such things with my dad. But I did ask him about it the next time I saw him and he was clearly embarrassed. Avoiding further conversation, he simply said, “A girl has to know when to say no, because when you are pregnant and you don’t want to be there are no good options. But if that ever happens to you, you come to me and I’ll help you.” That statement has been etched on my heart ever since.  In so many ways it sums up my relationship with my father. He has always been the person who could simultaneously clearly state his expectations and his beliefs about how I should conduct myself – “pretty is as pretty does” –and at the same time acknowledge the realities of being human.

Fast-forward another seven, or eight years and I was working in a teen clinic in a hospital located in an extremely high need neighborhood. I did all kinds of things in that clinic and one of my main activities was “options counseling” for teen girls who were pregnant.  I was not so far away from adolescence myself and began this work with the view that an early pregnancy represented a crisis.  Overtime, I learned that an early pregnancy represented as many possibilities as there were young women in that circumstance.  For some, it was a joy, a happy accident of which their family was aware and supportive.  For others it was a secret and they were convinced, as I would’ve been, that they could never talk with their mothers about their situation. It was my practice to encourage them to talk with their moms and many times I helped facilitate those conversations. By then I knew that no matter what mothers say to their teens, when the chips are down, they want to help and they do not want their daughters to go through challenging experiences alone.  And, I knew, that the best decisions teens make – 9 times out of 10 – are decisions that fit with their families’ beliefs and values – not mine and not yours.  But notice that qualifier – 9 times out of 10.  There are exceptions. Families that are hardly families at all, where young people have been raising themselves and making their own way for years. There are families whose belief systems are so rigid and a young person desperately wants something different that to involve the family would be to risk harm to the girl’s life or leave her with no place to live unless she followed their wishes. And, these wishes could go either way.  Sometimes families felt that having a baby was punishment for being sexually active. On the flip side, I had family members call me and yell at me because I would not “make” their daughter have an abortion. Never mind that a forced abortion is illegal in this country; a doctor doing such a thing would be prosecuted for assault and battery.  So what I learned in this role was the wisdom both of my profession, which prioritizes individual autonomy, and also the wisdom of my father: my goal was to help them make a their own decision, not tell them what their decision should be.

And so to my friend and so many like her who cheer these repressive laws and the pre-ordained paths those laws produce, I would ask, who would you want me to be for your daughter or your son’s girlfriend or one night stand?  Would you want me to tell her what she has to do because the government has decreed what that choice should be?  Or would you want me to help her talk to people who are important to her. Maybe you, maybe her minister, her aunt, or her father, so that the decision would reflect something thought through, examined, carefully weighed, and freely chosen. Would you want me to shuttle her off to prenatal care without a second look or would you want me help her know her own heart and mind? These laws take away the possibility that a woman might find a non-judgmental ear, someone to help her talk to others who care about her, or simply some space to consider how to move forward.

The arguments on TV and elsewhere about abortion are all ridiculous in different ways. Of course an embryo or a fetus is not an organ like an extra kidney or an appendix. It is sad that we spend so much of our public discourse on red herrings. Abortion is one of, if not the most ancient of medical procedures.  Cultures around the world have recognized for centuries that there are times and circumstances in which carrying a pregnancy to term is terrible idea. Abortion was made legal across this country because women seek abortions whether they are legal or not.  But when they are illegal, women are maimed, infected, often made sterile, or sometimes die at that hands of charlatans and mercenaries that prey on their desperation.  That is why a network of clergy existed to help women get safe abortions in this country before it was made legal in every state. That is why physicians campaigned for legal abortion as a matter of public health.

Are there times that people regret a decision to have either an abortion or a baby? Of course. Are there times they regret a decision to place a child for adoption? Undoubtedly. But that is the price of freedom – the chance to make our own decisions, as long as they do not hurt the wider community, and to live with the consequences, whether they are positive, negative, or indeed a complex web of regrets, hopes, and contentment that make up the reality of our lives.


Note about the photo: If you click next to the colon below, you will be taken to the site where the photo originates from, the archive of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Photo credit: 

Current Events Family Youth Issues


What a week to be the mother of a 17-year-old boy.  At dinner a few nights ago, my son asked me if I would talk with him about Anita Hill. His AP Government class is studying the episode and he wanted to know what I remembered about it.  When my teen asks me questions beyond, “What’s for dinner?” my policy is to drop everything and engage. We talked for almost two hours.

He was interested in all of it. Where I was living: seven blocks behind the Capitol. How engaged I was in the coverage: I watched every minute I could and read every news article.  I told him about how electrified I was by the photograph featured here of the seven women who marched from the House to the Senate and demanded that the allegations be investigated. How I desperately wished I could go to the hearings myself.

Then, I told him what I remembered of Professor Hill. How she spoke clearly, without malice, with great dignity, how she introduced her parents to the committee, how she simply told the truth over and over. I told him how, until that time, I had liked Arlen Specter, the senator from Pennsylvania. But after his relentless attempts to embarrass Professor Hill I hated him. I remembered that the senator from Alabama, whose name escapes me, asked her in his slow southern drawl if she was, “a woman scorned” or if she wanted to “write a book.”  And then I told him how every man on that committee, including Joe Biden, cowered in response to Clarence Thomas’ opening punch accusing them of a “high tech lynching.”

And then I told him what twenty-something me took away from watching Anita Hill, although I could not have articulated it then. I learned that, as a woman, it did not matter that you were smart, well-spoken, modest, church going, high achieving, or from a hard-working family.  You could be a “good woman” or one with a more complicated past. But, if you told the truth about how men treat women, you would be over-ruled even if those men knew, in their heart of hearts, you were telling the truth. I told him about my own experiences of harassment and assault, even though they are mild in comparison to others. I told him that if something had happened to me in high school like what Professor Ford says happened to her, I would not have even had language to describe it, much less think it was illegal. Like her, I would have thought it was my fault or at least that there was nothing to be done about it.  I too would’ve been quiet. Indeed, about most violations that have happened in my life, I have been silent or made them into a joke.

We talked again last night after I insisted on listening together to this extraordinary podcast in which Caitlyn Flanagan and Michael Barbaro talk about an attempted ‘date rape’ in Flanagan’s high school past*. Embodied in their talk is the essence of atonement, a demonstration of what miracles are wrought by thorough and sincere apologies. It is a lesson in empathy, forgiveness, and redemption. Judge Kavanaugh should listen to it.

As we listened and then talked, I realized that this oldest and most complicated son of mine has grown up a lot in the last three years. He spoke with great empathy about what he is learning now that he has more female friends that tell him about how they live and move in the world. He cried as he listened to Ms. Flanagan describe her suicide attempt following the attack. He is recognizing the privileged place he occupies and how little the culture asks him to think about his safety or worth. He seems to be reckoning with the responsibility that comes with the unearned privilege he has as he makes choices about the adult he wants to be.

What will happen in the current circumstance is anybody’s guess. The values central to the situation – truth, honor, justice, or even mercy – are being completely ignored, ironic given the goal of filling a seat on our highest court. My son told me he thinks his generation of young men is different. I nodded in agreement, but in truth I doubt it. Unless they are extraordinary, young men will do what older men in their orbits do and what their culture tells them they can.  As the Kavanaugh confirmation continues to unfold, we will learn more about what our culture believes about women today. Silence does not serve us, and as the podcast points out, it does not serve our young men either.

*She wrote about this experience a few days ago in the Atlantic magazine.


Engaged Scholarship Youth Issues

Where Research and Real Life Collide

This morning I woke up at home after a quick trip to England. I was attending a conference on migration hosted by a journal for which I occasionally I review. The event was free and there were some people I was interested in hearing on the program. To keep my thinking fresh, it helps to get out of my routine and listen to smart people talk about issues I care about. Inevitably I return to my work with new eyes. Yet when I opened the newspaper this morning, it was not “my work” that I was thinking about in the context of the conference; it was Wildin Acosta, an 18 year old senior at Riverside High School in Durham, NC who could be deported to his native Honduras at any moment following a judge’s decision to deny his request for an asylum hearing.

He’s been in detention in Georgia for about six weeks and has requested that his teachers, who have been in contact by phone, send him homework so that he may have a chance of graduating in June. His high school has rallied to his defense with teachers and students holding vigils and writing letters to courts and elected representatives. Indeed, the representative for the area in which he lives has requested review of the latest decision from the highest levels of the federal government and the city council passed a resolution on his behalf. But the options are running out for him as today’s article in the Raleigh News and Observer details .

Wildin’s story brings to life the language I was hearing at the conference. Alex Betts of Oxford uses the term survival migrants: individuals who are not choosing to leave their homeland for better economic chances; they are coming because they must if they and their families are to have a chance to survive. The threats they experience might include the violence of grinding poverty or physical violence. This language gives voice to so much of my work with new immigrants in North Carolina. Their choice to move is not about income per se. It is about survival. It is the Acosta family’s story too. Beginning with Wildin’s father, family members began leaving Honduras 10 years ago due to escalating violence and poverty. His mother followed a few years later. When both had gotten stable work here in the US, they sent for their children. At 16 years old, Wildin made the treacherous journey only to be stopped at the Texas border. He explained to border patrol that he was leaving Honduras due to gang threats in Honduras. Read this NYT article from 2014, the year Wildin came to the U.S., to learn more about the realities of life there. He went to his first hearing and was advised not to return for his second by an attorney because he had turned 18 and was at greater risk of being deported. It is at that moment that his situation became particularly precarious. Here’s the second new term I learned.

Precarity: a term applied by Elaine Chase of University College, London to capture more accurately the ways in which immigrant and refugee young people are vulnerable. She argues convincingly that the vulnerabilities associated with these young people are not really vulnerabilities at all – they are precarities: vulnerabilities that come from their status as refugees or undocumented immigrants or unaccompanied minors. A quick google search told me that the social class in this situation is now referred to as the “precariat.” This too is Wildin’s story. This young man is solid student, growing up in a working, two-parent household. He had plans to attend Durham Tech after graduation. He has friends, played sports, and has won the respect of his teachers. He is not involved drugs or other illegal activity. He exemplifies current data out of the UT Austin School of Social Work that immigrants are 50 % less likely to binge drink, be involved in any way with illegal drugs, and 33% less likely to commit violent crimes as compared to their native born counter parts. . In other words, he is not vulnerable, at-risk, high-risk, a risk. Yet, he is also not “resilient.” He can’t be because the social structures in which he finds himself make his existence precarious. And in a democracy those structures are determined by you and me.

Many have and are speaking out on Wildin’s behalf. They are using the democratic process and their freedom of speech to protest an injustice in progress. If there is any silver lining to this story that’s not yet over, it allows, at least for a moment immigrants and refugees to move from being “them” to being “him,” a real kid, with real hopes, real promise, in real trouble. Like many, I will keep hoping for Wildin and others like him. I hope that an individual who hears his story and has the power to change it will use that power. And for the rest of us, my hope that we can move from seeing immigrants and refugees as burdens toward Alex Bett’s view in which people with very real needs can also be recognized as active agents that re-energize our communities and in so doing gain skills and resources to rebuild their own home countries when conflicts have resolved.

Image Credit: Stuart McAlpine

Youth Issues

Call It By Its Name: Bullying = Cruelty

Yesterday my Facebook feed was full of posts about a teen suicide in the community in which I grew up. The young person was a victim of cyber-bullying and, although the parents and others were actively trying to help, he ended his life. The community is reeling because this is a well-loved family and part of a seemingly “safe” world in which disturbing events are rare or, when they do occur, are easily categorized into events where blame can be clearly placed or events beyond human control. Yet, this death breaks that mold and has people soul searching. Several have mentioned the strong social pecking order at the high school he attended. Others have speculated that there something about this community that creates a situation in which a youngster can easily suffer. Others ask what can be done differently in the future? It has me thinking too, thinking about bullying research done by several of our recent Ph.D. graduates and about how communities treat people who are different.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data demonstrate that almost a third of young people have been bullied ( ). Physical bullying is the weapon of choice for boys, emotional and relational bullying that of girls. Newer on the scene is cyber bullying in which social media, text messages, etc. are used to ensure that individuals have no respite from the torture doled out at school, on the sports field, in the faith community, or the neighborhood. Kids can be bullied when they wake up, while they do their homework, before bed, or in the middle of the night. The bully is not left at the bus stop, the school house door, or the locker room. He or she can infiltrate all parts of life through the smart phone.

Frankly, the word “bully” bugs me. The image it conjures is of a grumpy, but of sort of cute, little bull. And bullying is anything but cute. Bullying is a pattern of using physical or social power to intimidate. It is behavior that makes people feel shut out, unworthy, too different, unlovable, unsafe, and alone. No different really than harassment, assault, or other behavior that we label cruel and criminal. Indeed, it is cruelty that we excuse a bit because it is done most often by people we consider immature. And although serious bullying is easy to spot, the more subtle forms are not. We’re not always clear on where the line is crossed between “kids working it out” and a kid becoming a target.

We’re also unclear about whether bullying really represents a problem to be solved or a normal, though difficult part of growing up. Indeed, most of us will face social rejection at one time or another. Sometimes we need to learn that our habits or ways of being are annoying or not conducive to friendships. Relationships with peers can teach us those things. Likewise, they can teach us about who real friends are and where you find them. But bullying is different. It isn’t a friendship that goes awry where mean words are said, a fight breaks out, the relationship ends, and the parties involved avoid each other and move on. Bullying focuses on who you are more so than what you do and like fire, if not actively put out, grows in intensity and strength. Its goal is to destroy.

But destroy what? Usually the answer is difference. Kids with disabilities, being in the minority culture in school, being perceived has gay, lesbian, bi, or trans, have all been associated with bullying. In North Carolina we passed a law several years ago, the Safe Schools Act, that ostensibly protected kids in the groups mentioned from bullying. But in a recent analysis done by one of our doctoral graduates, not all kids were protected equally (Hall, 2015). Teachers knew that the law applied to kids with disabilities and kids being targeted based on race or ethnicity; kids perceived as LGBTQ kids were left out. Another doctoral graduate found that LGBTQ name-calling was associated with the most severe forms of bullying (Evans & Chapman, 2014).

Of course there are lots of ways kids can be different. They may have interests that don’t fit, an off-beat sense of humor, like different music or styles of dress. If my home community where this recent tragedy occurred is complicit in some way, insistence on conformity is the likely culprit. Be smart but not intellectual. Be athletic. Be very clearly straight. These faith communities are okay. Those faith communities are not. Don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. If you’re a female, let the boys think they’re smarter than you. If you’re a boy, you can have interests outside of sports and hunting, but nothing too artsy. Do whatever you need to do to be considered an insider.

Here’s the hard part. Social norms are communicated and transmitted by adults. From the time children are very small they observe and listen to the jokes that are told and tolerated, know the proper activities in which adults want them to participate, notice which kids teachers encourage and protect and which are hung out to dry, watch the things the adults around them do to conform, and on and on. The insecure, troubled young person who decides to act out through bullying is given very clear messages about who an appropriate target will be. Coupled with the endless oxygen supply that is social media, the cruelty spark is easily fueled.

If horrible events that cause such immeasurable pain have anything to give us, it is to force reflection on whether what we say about our values when we are confronted with distressing events aligns with our behavior, and the messages, implicit and explicit, that we give the young people who look up to us, whether we are teachers, neighbors, coaches, parents, clergy, or others. Are our signals clear about what we value most? Are we teaching kids that the world is much bigger than their current circumstances and they will find their place even if it is far away from where they start out? How do we give thanks for the wide variety of people in that big, wide, world instead of expressing disdain for and fear of what we don’t understand? Bullying programs in schools may help, although the research is mixed (Evans, Fraser, & Cotter, 2014). Policies provide a foundation by communicating clear societal values but they are not sufficient when individuals do not know about them or enforce them (Hall, et al, under review).

I was recently contacted about a new program called “Challenge Day” that aims to promote increased empathy among middle and high school students ( ). Does it make a lasting difference? Who knows? There is probably no one silver bullet; instead there will be many. To honor this child’s legacy and those that have gone before him, perhaps our first step is to reflect on what we, as adults, teach our young people and make sure we are communicating what we think we are.