As part of our education advocacy project we recently launched an online survey asking young people to tell us about their experiences of abortion education at school. We received hundreds of responses – so thank you to all those who completed the survey or passed it on. Although a minority reported positive experiences, having attended lessons which they felt were ‘neutral’ and gave them good information, our concerns about misinformation and bias in this area were confirmed by a greater part of the responses received.
Firstly, just under 30% of those aged 20 and under said that they’d learnt nothing about abortion at school. Many of those who had not learnt about abortion felt that this was a wasted opportunity:
It was certainly referenced, but I'm not sure it was properly 'taught'. As it was merely a glancing reference normally, it didn't have much impact. Looking back, however, I'm disappointed by how glaring this absence was, especially as I went to an all-girls' school which didn't exactly have the lowest teen pregnancy rate. 19, London
It was a lost opportunity for myths and stigma to be challenged. 18, Leicester
Of those who did receive abortion education, the majority had learnt about the topic as part of Religious Education (R.E). Although sometimes this meant a useful exploration of religious perspectives on abortion, a number of respondents reported negative experiences. Some were concerned that they had missed out on important factual and practical information about contraception, abortion access and local sexual health services:
I think there was too much scaremongering involved and not enough science. I think it should have been taught during a biology lesson rather than religious ed. 19, North Yorkshire
(It made me feel) uncomfortable, as if I wouldn't be able to make the decision I would want (they leant towards adoption/keeping at a young age) I also felt it was inappropriate in a town with a high teenage pregnancy rate, instead of leaning towards how to protect yourself. Choosing an organisation who would have given advice on safe sex and impartial options (maybe NHS/Connexions services) would have been better. 19, Hampshire
I came away thinking that if the condom/pill failed then it was a divine sign of things which are meant to be. 19, Kent
Others were subjected to highly judgemental and biased accounts of abortion, based on the teacher/speaker’s own beliefs:
My R.E. teacher taught about the 'evils' of aborting a foetus that had mental or physical impairments. The women who came in showed us pictures and videos of late stage abortions...All the experiences seemed designed to put students off abortion or make those who had already had an abortion feel guilty or like murderers. It was never presented as a choice that women sometimes choose, or something that happens every day. 20, Surrey
(I was taught that abortion) was immoral, murder etc, every child has the right to life sort of thing and that the mother would go straight to hell for it...we had no facts or balanced arguments. 17, Newcastle
They said god said it was wrong and that it murdered babies and psychologically damaged women. 20, Northern Ireland
Perhaps most worryingly, some respondents reported having been ‘humiliated’ or ‘singled out’ for their own personal views or experiences of abortion:
They said (abortion) was wrong, and that it was much better to bring the pregnancy to term...No details were ever given of the procedure and the child was always spoken of being murdered and murder was wrong. My personal views, I was told they were wrong because I agree with abortion but everyone who agreed with the teacher was not humiliated in front of the class... (I felt) humiliated and that my life and opinions were not wanted and that I wasn't regarded with respect because I allow everyone to have a choice. 16, County Antrim
He (RE teacher) gave us a very basic explanation then called on a girl who had had an abortion and asked for her opinion on the matter. No one else was encouraged to discuss what they thought and I left the lesson feeling as though abortion was something to be ashamed of...(I felt) very under- informed and angry on behalf of my friend who was singled out. 14, Wales
Thankfully, not all respondents had had such a negative experience. Some praised the abortion education they had received and felt that it had been a worthwhile learning experience:
Lesson was from a priest, but from an honest, unbiased perspective. 18, Oxfordshire
I actually felt well-informed. My teacher was not judgmental or nasty, thinking back I'm pretty sure she was pro-choice, but she gave both sides of the argument and allowed us to form our own decisions. 20, Northampton
Unfortunately the majority of responses were from those who received no education about abortion, or had had inaccurate, misleading or distressing lessons at school. There was also a general sense that with the majority of these lessons taking place in R.E, students were at risk of missing important factual information about the realities of abortion.
To read more about why we think it’s important to teach about abortion and our best practice guidelines for doing so have a look at the EFC Abortion Education Toolkit. And please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have further information on the way abortion is taught in your area.