Some Thoughts on Teen Pregnancy

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If you were giving a talk on teen pregnancy to a conservative, faith-based group who cares, what messages would you want to convey?

A couple of years ago I asked this question of someone in our family planning division at work. I was serious. I wanted her perspective. She did not hesitate.

I would tell them we live in a sex-saturated society, and everyone else is talking about sex – they need to be part of the conversation. I would tell them that you are not giving a teenager a mixed message if you tell them what you believe and what you would want them to do, and yet arm them with tools and knowledge about contraception if they make a different choice.”  It was a great conversation.

So armed with this, as well as facts and figures that tell more of the story of teen pregnancy I ended up leading a discussion at our church.

Along with the facts, I wanted to give a face to the story. I chose to show a clip from a documentary called “The Gloucester 18”.

In 2008 Gloucester, Massachusetts – a seaport city known for its lobster, fishing and The Perfect Storm found itself in the center of a world-wide media frenzy. Reporters from as far away as Australia and Brazil descended on the town with cameras,microphones and all the other apparatus needed for a sensational story. The reason?  There were four times the number of teen pregnancies than previous years and word had surfaced that 18 teenage girls had made a pact to become pregnant. As the nurse practitioner at Gloucester High School said “People love scandal”.

News networks preyed on this story like hawks and the girls and their families were deluged with phone calls from CNN to Dr. Phil.

So what is the real story behind these Gloucester teenagers? More importantly what’s the story behind teen pregnancy in general?

What we know:

We know several things. We know that teen pregnancy is a complicated issue and those that ignore the complexity are living in denial. “Just Don’t Do It” or teaching kids about sex by showing them Barbie and Ken in a shoe box seem to be  ineffective ways to deal with teens and sex, teens and pregnancy. While the United States has seen a significant decline in recent years, the lowest rate in 70 years, we still have the highest rate in the developing world, surpassing Great Britain, France, The Netherlands and Sweden.

We know other things as well….

  • that 50% of teen mothers get a high school diploma by age 22, compared with 90% of teen girls who do not give birth.
  • that teen childbearing costs U.S.taxpayers about $9 billion each year.
  • that girls born to teen mothers are about 30% more likely to become teen mothers themselves.
  • that children of teen parents are more likely to do poorly in school and to drop out of school
  • that half of teen pregnancies end up in abortion – if we care about abortion we need to face and care about the issue of teen pregnancy
  • that southern states have a higher rate of pregnancy than northern states
  • that less teens are having sex now then in 1988
  • that when money is put into sex education and birth control, the abortion rate goes down.

So when the discussion comes around to “Do we expect abstinence only programs to work in the world as we know it” I would say no. Any good sex education program has abstinence as a part of the curriculum, but the operative word is part not the entire curriculum.

Back to the Gloucester 18 – a face to the problem.  The truth is, there was no pact. There was no conspiracy to all get pregnant at the same time. Most of the girls found out about a pact by watching the nightly news. The stories portrayed are poignant and real. In the spirit of a good documentary there is a raw and compelling truth that comes through and you can’t stay detached through facts and figures because they now have names and faces and most of all, babies. Beyond the newspaper stories were kids having kids. Girls searching for meaning and purpose, girls looking for stability and love, girls trying to please boyfriends and parents, friends and school authorities. Girls who were still trying to grow up and ended up facing the task of motherhood and parenting.

God doesn’t force his boundaries on anyone; He may long for us to stay within them, but He doesn’t force us.

As much as I may want to wave my wand and make teenagers make different choices, I don’t have that ability. But I can understand the problem, present my view passionately and at the same time be willing to recognize the world we live in, a world we must respond to in ways that are wise. We live in a broken world, a world that is not as it should be. Our world is made up of people who have choices. God doesn’t force his boundaries on anyone; He may long for us to stay within them for our own protection, but He doesn’t force us. So what should my response be? Compassion? Common sense? Tough Love? Interest? All that and perhaps more? 

As I think about the issue of teen pregnancy and teen sexuality I think about sex as a china cup. A fragile, expensive china cup created by a Master Craftsman, with a unique and beautiful design. But once passed from the Craftsman to us to care for, the china cup broke into many pieces. And each of us try to put together these broken pieces, try to put back a pattern and restore a sense of what was.

Teen pregnancy is just one broken piece of the many. Can the Church be part of a solution to put it back together?

Note: This blog has been revised from a post written in 2012. I chose to repost because of the decision to cut millions of dollars from prevention programs.

From Privilege to Responsibility

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In the United States, Charlottesville, VA has occupied the top news for over 48 hours. This is not a cause for celebration, but a tragic reality where a rally largely controlled by alt right racists turned violent and ugly. The city is now mourning the death of a young woman who died needlessly as the result of a car attack.

The racism displayed was blatant, proudly worn without hoods or disguises. There seemed to be no shame, no lowering of the eyes, no regret.  Instead, it is animal like and brutal.

What have we come to?” So many shake wounded heads and sigh as they voice those words. Alternatively, many rightly respond that this is nothing new; that if you are unaware of the racism in this country then your eyesight needs to be healed.

“It is not the episodic marches and rallies that define white supremacy, it it is the ordinary, dull ways that society props up the racial caste system that lead to the most egregious offenses. American citizens, particularly white people, have to realize how they unintentionally allow Charlottesville and white supremacy to happen.” From RAANetwork.org

I am on my own journey and have much to learn, but I have learned this: As a white woman I must speak up. I must do these three things:

  • Point out injustice
  • Recognize I walk through the world differently than my friends who are people of color.
  • Influence people in my space

I wrote the words below exactly a month ago and I am reposting. Why? Because in my current reality, it’s the only thing I know how to do. That and to pray those ancient words: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, a sinner. 

***** 

“There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted. 

Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.” from Passages Through Pakistan © Doorlight Publications, March 2017

In recent years, I have done a lot of thinking about how I view the world. Part of this came as I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences. As I moved on to writing Passages Through Pakistan, an excerpt of which I’ve included above, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land that had been colonized not many years before I came into the world.

Another significant part of this journey has come through friendships with, and reading about, people whose life experience has been a stark contrast to my own, due to nothing other than the color of their skin. In other words, I realized that I experienced privilege of which I was completely unaware.

when our eyes are open, we can make wrong situations right.

I know many of us who are white may get tired of words and phrases, that there are times when we want to shout “Not me! I’m not like that!” when we are confronted by stories of racism and bias, but I’ve been learning how important it is to remember that I, as a white woman, walk through the world differently than people of color. I see the world through a lens of privilege. And because I walk through the world differently, I have a responsibility. It’s not a responsibility born of guilt, it’s a responsibility born of privilege.

In the words of Courtney Ariel from Sojourners Magazine:

“Privilege means that you owe a debt. You were born with it. You didn’t ask for it. And you didn’t pay for it either. No one is blaming you for having it. You are lovely, human, and amazing. Being a citizen of a society requires work from everyone within that society. It is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge the work that is yours to do. It is up to you whether you choose to pay this debt and how you choose to do so.”

It is with this in mind that I want to share a short, three-minute video. In this video three things stood out to me. They are clear and they are actionable.

  • Point out injustice
  • Recognize we walk through the world differently
  • Influence people in our space

We think we can’t change the world, but, when our eyes are open, we can make wrong situations right.

“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” Elie Wiesel

There is a verse in the Old Testament that I learned when I was a teenager. I have memorized it, quoted it, and written about it. Because it is what distinguishes empty religion from true faith. The prophet Micah has been asking rhetorical questions about sacrifice, wondering what God requires. In the verse I love, he answers his own question and the words have been recited and inscribed through time.

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God.

And that’s exactly what we are called to do: Do Justly. Love Mercy. Walk humbly. 

Note – this article has been updated since it was originally posted to include new thoughts and new links.

You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught


Last night I went to an Iftar celebration. It was sponsored by the Greater Boston Muslim Health Initiative – a group that periodically meets to focus on specific health needs of the Muslim community in the area. It was an eclectic group of people, each of us with strengths in different areas, community members and advocates.

And of course – Nabra’s death came up. You may not know the story. Nabra Hassanen was a 17 year-old who lived in Northern Virginia. Early on Sunday morning, Nabra prematurely lost her life to a man filled with rage and bent on destroying life. She was assaulted and beaten with a bat, her body left in a pond to be found by law enforcement a few hours later.

Nabra had celebrated a Ramadan meal with friends and was on her way to the mosque with the same group of friends when the incident occurred.

Seventeen. Muslim. A young woman. A person of color. Now dead.

A death like this makes no sense – indeed it is put into the album for the unexplainable. Is it road rage? Is it a hate crime? No matter what you call it, it won’t bring Nabra’s life back. She’s gone – gone way too soon.

A song in the old musical South Pacific unwillingly goes through my head:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Taught to be afraid. Taught to hate. Taught to kill. Taught to think of people as less than. Because when you are carefully taught these things, you can treat people as you like without conscience or remorse. 

What might our world look like if we were taught to see the image of God in each person? If we were aware of how bound together we are in our life journey? What might it look like if we saw people as God sees them – beloved and worthy? If we changed our worldview from glorifying the individual to humbly loving collective humanity.

My heart weeps for Nabra’s family and community. This assault must feel so big and so awful, so personal during the month of Ramadan.

My heart also weeps for the cancer of prejudice and racism in our society, that we are so carefully taught to despise and hate, without even being aware. 

And even as I write this, I know I am not innocent. For any time I ignore others, anytime I dismiss another as unworthy, I’m doing the same thing. The consequences are less, the action and heart attitude is the same. When we deem people as unworthy, we can do whatever we like to them. 

How can we change this societal narrative? How can we begin to see ourselves as integrally connected, bound together in this journey? Your grief is my grief, your sin is my sin, your joy my joy, your burdens, my burdens. 

How can we rid ourselves of what we have been carefully taught and soften our hearts? 

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monasticism is alive and well. Contrary to what many believe, monks and nuns do not merely seclude themselves from the world. Instead, they align themselves with the world through prayer. They pray for the world. They are “intentional in living this mystery of our mystical unity and responsibility.”*

St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “and what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of merciful men pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grubs his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear if or see any injury or slight suffering of anything in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually…” 

What more is there to say, but that God would “unteach” us that which we have been carefully taught; that he would give us hearts of mercy instead of stone. 

And that we would take seriously our mystical connection and our mutual responsibility and act upon it. 

*Scott Cairns in The End of Suffering

World Refugee Day – #withrefugees

Every year, June 20th is a day set aside to remember the millions of refugees and displaced people in our world. But it’s not just a day to remember – it’s also a day to think about what we can collectively and individually do about the refugee crisis. 

So in today’s post I want to pose a couple of questions: 

  1. What can we do to overcome apathy or fear? 
  2. What specific things in your community could you do to welcome refugees. 
  3. How can we change some of the common narratives, that are not based on fact, that marginalize refugees? 

Today will you #standwithrefugees? 

For more information on refugees, click here

Source: UNHCR World Refugee Day

On Perspective Taking

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One of the best things about the Families in Global Transition Conference this past week was the diversity of perspectives from around the world. While all of us had an deep interest in living between worlds, we all come to it with different perspectives.

Perspective taking – it’s something I think about a lot. Below is a short video where I talk about perspective taking. Enjoy, and please add your comments on what you think it takes to hear the other side.

On Perspective Taking from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

Dear Seema: The Politics of Prevention

 

Note: Seema Verma is President Trump’s nominee to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the United States.

Dear Seema,

I’m a Registered Nurse who works in Boston, Massachusetts. I have witnessed first-hand what it is like for people to go without insurance, to delay preventive health screening only to find out that cancer is a far more expensive problem.

There are not a lot of things that make my proverbial blood boil, but reducing access to preventive healthcare, including maternity benefits, does. It makes me so angry I can’t see straight.

Look, I get it. Health care is expensive. Someone has to pay for it. But everyone bears the burden of an unhealthy society and while the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) was not perfect, it began to put some policies in place that have been needed for a long time.

I come to this not from any political party line. I am a proudly independent voter – in fact, prouder by the day that I don’t buy into that assanine system called “two party.” I also live in Massachusetts where a Republican governor put health care reform as a top priority over 8 years ago and we are slowly reaping the benefits.

 

When, at your confirmation hearing, you mentioned that coverage for maternity benefits should be optional, I shook my head in disbelief.

Optional? Optional? I had to repeat it to myself to believe that you actually said it. The argument goes that if you’re a man or too old to get pregnant, then why should you have to pay for someone to have a baby? The lack of logic and understanding in that idea astounds me! The logical conclusion is that I shouldn’t have to pay for any of the choices that others make. So, by your logic, I shouldn’t have to pay for the business man who has a heart attack and needs bypass surgery. After all, I wasn’t the one who ate and drank too much. It was him.

Maternity benefits are an essential part of a healthy society. Maternity benefits speak to the value of family and children, they provide essential care for a future generation.

As Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Women says: “We buy insurance for uncertainty and to spread the costs of care across a broad population so that when something comes up, that person has adequate coverage to meet their needs,”  But insurance is not designed to be an  “a la carte approach”. “Women don’t need prostate cancer screening, but they pay for the coverage anyway.”

When as a nation did we allow politics to co-opt our health, to feed us misinformation about insurance and that terror-producing term ‘socialized medicine’? Truth is the term ‘socialized medicine’ is a made up phrase. It was first heard in the early 1900’s but came into wide use when the American Medical Association fought against a national health insurance plan proposed by President Truman. It conjured images of a hammer and sickle approach to health care that would lead us down the slippery slope to communism. That was in 1947 – and it was a public relations coup, for in the six and a half decades since that time we have allowed the term to rule us, to be thrown around willy nilly to produce fear and anger, obnoxious and ignorant voices leading the way.

Here’s what happens when you let politics coopt prevention: 

A breast cancer lump ulcerates and eats away the flesh of a breast; a cervical lesion, easily removed, grows and turns into a completely preventable cancer; a gnawing indigestion and bloated feeling turns into cancer eating away at your colon – fully preventable had screening taken place early in the disease process. You know what else happens when politics coopts prevention? Abortion rates, already far too high, go up. You can’t have it both ways – you can’t want abortion rates to go down and yet reject the notion of maternity care and birth control coverage.

Preventive health is not about being Republican or Democrat or Independent or Green Party or Libertarian. Preventive health is about the health of a society as a whole; it is about being human, living in a broken world where illness and death and “pre-existing” conditions are a reality. Preventive health and being sick is not about politics. When will we in the United States get that?

What you should want to do in your tenure is make the Affordable Care Act better! You should want to expand on it and leave a legacy that puts Obama Care into the water. You should want to make a name for yourself as a person who makes health care great, not just tolerable.

Instead, I’m shaking my head and saying: “What in the name of Sam Hill is she thinking?” 

C’mon Seema! Be a Woman. Stand up for what is right. 

 

I am Not Muslim: On Identiy Confusion Solidarity

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During the weekend, an “I am a Muslim too” rally took place in New York City at Times Square. A picture of the event shows a large crowd gathered, all mouths opened in unison. A couple of white women are front and center, holding signs of a woman in a hijab made up of stars and stripes – a poster courtesy of the talented Shepard Fairey that has gained popularity from sea to shining sea in the past month. I will spare you and not get into how problematic it feels to create a hijab out of the American flag – that’s another conversation.

For now, I want to focus on the rally. I did not participate in the rally and I’m shaking my head at what I consider the shallow acceptance of the claim:”I am Muslim too.”

Actually, I am not Muslim. I grew up with Muslims as my friends and aunties. I was cared for by Muslim women and learned from them. I went on to raise my children to live and love a Muslim country and the people who surrounded us. Muslims cared for my children when they were small. They were our friends, our neighbors, our babysitters. I continue to count Muslim women as some of my closest friends. But I am not Muslim.

And the grey-haired woman in the forefront of the picture I saw wearing a statue of liberty tiara? I am 99.9% sure that she is not Muslim either.

I am not in favor of participating in identity confusion solidarity. And that’s what this particular demonstration felt like. It felt like a shallow way of showing support. 

By contrast, I had no problem promoting and marching in a pro-immigrant march a couple of weeks ago. The message felt completely different.  It was solidarity without identity confusion.

To say I am a Muslim means that I accept the truth claims of Islam. To say I am a Muslim means that I accept an identity that is far bigger than a sign on poster board. I do not share the identity and I do not share the truth claims of Islam, just as my Muslim friends do not share the truth claims of Christianity. There are many commonalities, many things that can bind us together as friends and neighbors, but there are also key differences.

Why do I have to chant “I am Muslim too!” to show solidarity with my Muslim friends?  There has to be a better way. 

In the past two years I have had the privilege of getting to know the Muslim community in the greater Boston area. I have been doing a health project with foreign-born Muslim women and through it I have been welcomed into several of the many Muslim communities in the area. I have shared meals with Pakistani, Iranian, Syrian, and Somali women. I have been invited to hear their views on health care and learn from them more about how public health can better serve them. I have been to mosques and to homes. The connections and friendships that I have made are a testament to the generosity of the Muslim community.

For me to say “I am Muslim too” feels like it’s an insult to the resilience and experience of the community.

It doesn’t feel like solidarity. Just like it would feel like I was insulting the Black community if I held a sign saying “I am Black too.” Because I’m not black. We cannot assume that we know what the experience of another is just because we march with big signs. I have no clue what it is like to have to flee a country and know I can never go back. I have no clue what it is like to face prejudice because of my skin color. How on earth would I know what it feels like to be concerned for my sons because of their skin color?  I have no clue what it is like to be attacked because I wear hijab. These are experiences that I cannot claim as my own. 

What I can claim is to want to support the community in ways that are lasting and sustainable. What I can claim is a desire to know the community better, to invite people into friendship and connection. What I can claim is to be learning more about my own privilege and how that can be used for good or for ill.

As I looked at pictures from the march this weekend, I wondered how many of the people present actually had Muslim friends. I wondered how many have actually invited people into their homes to share a meal, to share a conversation. I wondered how we can take the obvious energy and time that went into shouting “I am Muslim too” and turn it into something that could help the Muslim community in the long-term.

So – no, I am not Muslim and I don’t believe that this kind of solidarity is helpful for the long-term. I don’t believe that identity confusion will help my Muslim friends. But, because I place high value on my Christian faith, I will do whatever I can in my small spheres of influence to support a community that I love.