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Sexist Reproductive Health Laws Keep Poor Women from Attending College

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Opinions

October 21, 2016

Most of the straight and bisexual women I know at Brandeis use birth control. They have never had an unwanted pregnancy and have never experienced a pregnancy scare. They started using birth control before having sex for the first time, and they almost always use condoms. This is partially because of the accessibility of birth control at Brandeis. On the Brandeis health insurance plan, the birth control pill is free, and condoms are extremely affordable at SSIS. But Brandeis’ encouragement of birth control is not the only reason that unplanned pregnancies are so uncommon among Brandeis students. It is also largely due to the privileged background of many Brandeisians. Young people with less privileged backgrounds are held back from attending schools like Brandeis because their circumstances make it far more likely that they will become pregnant.

Many Brandeisians come from urban or suburban environments where most schools have comprehensive sex education. While some Brandeisians do come from less privileged environments, Brandeis students overall tend to be relatively affluent. In the context of reproductive health, this means that Brandeis students grew up with health insurance that covered birth control and that they could afford condoms. Because of this, even before college, future Brandeis students were much less likely than the general population to become pregnant. This matters because an unwanted pregnancy can keep young women with academic aspirations from going to college.

One aspect that makes young people far more likely to become pregnant is lack of access to comprehensive sex education. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) reports that comprehensive sex education leads to a 50 percent reduction in teen pregnancy rates in relation to abstinence-only sex education. In fact, SIECUS found that comprehensive sex education led teenagers to begin having sex marginally later than those who had received abstinence-only education. Abstinence-only sex education is at its most ubiquitous and most powerful in poorer, more rural regions that are underrepresented here at Brandeis. Brandeis students who come from wealthier states in urban or suburban environments probably had access to more comprehensive sex education and were therefore less likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy.

However, sex education is not the only thing keeping future Brandeisians from unplanned pregnancy. The high cost of birth control also keeps less affluent young people from attending schools like Brandeis. For most Americans, the reality of birth control is uncertain and scary. Without health insurance, birth control in both pill and IUD form can be prohibitively expensive. If you get pregnant, an abortion can cost up to $600, and the stigma associated with abortion might leave you ostracized from your family and community. For many lower income women who become pregnant at an early age, staying home to raise their child is the only option.

That being said, raising a child as a young adult can be a fulfilling and beautiful experience. Many young mothers are happy, successful people who raise loving families. But the choice to start a family can be highly restrictive to one’s future education if that is wanted. Whether to have a child is an extremely challenging and meaningful choice, and financially forcing young people into pregnancy or motherhood does not allow them to make that choice.

A lack of sex education and financial resources can cause low income women to face an obstacle to a college education that men of all backgrounds do not encounter. The financial and emotional strain of a pregnancy, even if the pregnant person chooses to have an abortion or give the child to an adoptive couple, bars many women from being able to attend university. Young women and teenagers who have experienced pregnancy have to spend enormous amounts of money for prenatal care and childcare (or a very expensive abortion), which keeps them from being able to afford college. Furthermore, the emotional and physical strain of pregnancy makes it nearly impossible for a pregnant person to maintain an academic career.

People who cannot become pregnant, most of whom are men, do not face these obstacles. Some fathers involved in unplanned pregnancies provide fantastic support for the mother. However, they are not obligated to provide any support, and many provide no support. They do not have to provide emotional support to the struggling mother. They are also not obligated to help pay for an abortion or for prenatal healthcare. In many cases, they do have to pay child support, but many absent fathers successfully delay and avoid child support payments. This means that the fathers involved in unplanned pregnancies do not face the same financial and emotional obstacles in terms of going to college.

The result of the uneven burden placed on the mother in an unplanned pregnancy is that low income women might face more difficulty in receiving a college education than low income men. This gender gap involving the struggle of pregnancy for low income women contributes to the exclusive nature of Brandeis. Because Brandeis students tend to come from more affluent environments, they often feel disconnected from reproductive issues that primarily affect low income people. However, it is essential that Brandeis students use their position of relative power to help remedy these issues. Firstly, wealthier Brandeis students should advocate for the financial and emotional support of Brandeis students who come from less wealthy environments. Students should also organize for reproductive and sex education issues on a more general level. If low income young adults and teenagers have better access to comprehensive sex education and affordable birth control and abortion, Brandeis will have the opportunity to be much more inclusive.

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