In journalism school, the first thing they tell you is never, ever, to write an editorial about abortion or Planned Parenthood. It's bad juju. There is a reason I wasn't valedictorian in journalism school.
Some of the presidential candidates have made Planned Parenthood and the right-to-life vs. right-to-choice debate a front-burner issue again, and in the midst of this windy debate, a copy of a letter arrived on my desk that was seemingly written by a girl to the editors of a website called "teenwire.com"
"Dear Experts," it says, "I had an abortion a little over a month ago and now I'm pregnant again. What are the risks of having a second abortion?"
It is signed, "Leanne."
A supposed teenager pregnant for a second time just days after getting an abortion? And preparing for a second one?
If this is real, someone is a very slow learner, or perhaps our society has horrific holes in its ability to reach its young people. I went to check the letter out. It appears that "teenwire" is actually operated by Planned Parenthood, or at least in very tiny lettering at the bottom, it is copyrighted to that agency.
The letter is indeed one among many appearing in the site's "Ask the Experts" section. (The advice returned is not signed, and I did not see any medical credentials for who these "experts" are.)
Troubling as "Leann's" letter is, the response also gives pause.
"Abortion is a very safe procedure. It's about twice as safe as having tonsils removed, and is much safer than giving birth..." teenwire tells Leann. "There is no evidence that having more than one abortion causes any health problems."
At one point, "Leann" is told that "the most important thing is not to delay the abortion procedure."
Looking through the archive of letters to the website, it is clear that there is an agenda.
The repeated, standard response to questions on abortion seems to be "safer than giving birth..." and teens are advised not to delay.
Of course, the reasoning given for this is that the abortion procedure is statistically safer earlier in the pregnancy than later, which is correct. And to its credit, the site routinely throws in the caveat, "The need for abortion can be prevented by proper use of birth control." (A little late for Leann, it seems.)
Nowhere in the response does it say anything about the idea that the need for abortion can also be prevented by not having sex until you are old enough to do so responsibly.
Or that there should be any consideration of possibly having and raising a child you have conceived, or of putting the child up for adoption to a loving home. (Except the oft-repeated line that having a baby isn't as safe as aborting it, that is.)
It also does not advise that the girl should possibly consider informing the father of the unborn child of the situation...
One supposed teen writes that her friend is having an abortion, and says she is deeply concerned and wonders if she should tell her friend's mother. The reply, basically - no, you don't have a right to tell anyone. Um, check your Constitution on that.
Some of the questions are just heartbreaking - "Julissa" writes, "How can you make yourself have a miscarriage?" I was stunned.
"Bree" writes, "After your surgical abortion, are you able to just go along with your daily routine... if you are in athletics?" Are we really that cavalier about it?
"Jamika" asks for an explanation of the difference between pro-choice and pro-life.
The site responds that many pro-life people "mistakenly believe that pregnancy begins with the fertilization of the egg..." Whatever you believe, any time people's beliefs are dismissed as a "mistake," you have to wonder.
It all seems a bit tilted. Is that intended to be a reflection of teenage attitudes about pregnancy, I wonder?
I am not arguing against a woman's right of choice here, nor am I trying to belittle the importance of Planned Pregnancy - but I would argue that if we are out to protect "choice" here, these teens are not being told in this format of all the choices they do have.
There are countless good people yearning for a child to adopt, raise and love. I know several. Shouldn't that be a choice worth telling someone like "Leann" about, too?
Instead, she seems to be encouraged to rush into another abortion, and then to use contraception to continue her lifestyle choices. (Last time I checked, the birth control and homonal contraception referred to often on the site may be rather effective against pregnancy if used ideally, but is not a protection against sexually-transmitted disease).
There is probably a place for a service like "teenwire," though if it is going to be run by Planned Parenthood or any particular agency with its own agenda, it should clearly be labeled as such. Let's go ahead and identify our "experts" and source their "facts" to independent medical research, too. That's only responsible.
Not every young person with a question on their bodies or sexuality are going to feel comfortable going to a medical professional, school counselor or even a parent, and having a non-preachy, non-threatening, candid online source of accurate health information easily accessible for teens is a good idea. "teenwire" appears to have sections on issues like anorexia and self-image and such as well - good, good idea.
Allowing it to be tilted toward encouraging abortions, and failing to encourage responsibility in its responses to young people's questions, however, would be a terrible idea.
Someone like Leanne needs more than some pills or an endless stream of abortions. I hope she finds it eventually.
* Dana Larsen is the editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org