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Looking back a couple of decades to shades of a post-Roe world

Abortion rights supporters gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the morning on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Photo by Jane Norman / States Newsroom)

I’ve gotten a chance, a couple of times, to tell the story of my entry into journalism. The first time I told it was at a talk in response to a high school student’s question — maybe an obligatory one asked to earn participation points that day.

I was an adolescent when I started what I called an “underground newspaper.” A rejected story pitch inspired it: I had come to my school’s newspaper club with an idea for an article about a baby shower we were trying to hold for a friend, a student, during a school lunch.

I usually quickly blow past this point because I think it makes a listener wince or shift in their seat.

But today, in a United States where reproductive health care access is on the precipice of becoming even more restricted, I don’t feel much like glossing over the middle school lunch-hour baby shower so everyone can sit a little more comfortably.

At age 12, it was blowing my mind that someone I knew — a normal student who was a grade ahead of me and 13-years-old — was going to really have an actual baby. But as I shift my focus to her and try to interrogate my own memory, I’m not sure she knew much more about birthing or what, if anything, had been explained to her about parenting.

Because a lot of adults were shocked and angry about her pregnancy, her day-to-day became more dreary. My guess is that the experience of suddenly being so talked-about and so taboo, on top of being pregnant was awful. I thought my mind was blown. With an empathy that comes with age now, I’m sure hers was, too, even more so.

And that’s way more significant.

As a culture, we don’t make it easy for anyone to deliver and raise a child, no matter the parent’s age. The scene is much worse for young people, especially from neighborhoods without a lot of money. I know this for certain now. I was learning it then.

We have to consider Roe v. Wade and abortion rights in the full context of a public education system. When it comes to: a) sex and consent; b) birth control; c) reproductive rights; or d) parenting, public education systems have historically failed to give young people much of a picture of e) all of the above.

My friend had a boyfriend who was in high school and not much older than us. I can’t imagine he was a lot of help when it came to unearthing good information about what was in front of them in a pre-internet era.

As young, ignorant kids, we navigated the sudden reality of all of this in a childish way, mimicking what we thought older people did when someone was going to have a baby.

Her homies wanted to help — maybe cheer her up a little. We pooled our lunch money for a few days intending to buy choice public school snackbar food for the party, and hatched a plan to get the individually served pizza slices while they were still hot: Snag bathroom passes, slip out of fourth period a tiny bit early, be in line first. We were going to pick some flowers from people’s yards on our walk to school that day. And we were going to bring presents.

The whole thing is absurd when you think about what she probably really needed — nutrition, resources, calm, information, a path forward.

But I think just the idea that we were working on it for her, no matter how flawed the planning, did improve her mood some. She seemed like she was doing better overall in the days we were even just talking the baby shower through.

I wanted to write an article about it for my middle school newspaper so I could let more people know to bring gifts. Though I didn’t have all the framing or history I might have needed to say so back then, I remember the feeling of wanting to help shift the gossipy conversation about my friend away from being so negative and judgey. Naively, I thought the school could help us celebrate a little instead.

The newspaper club leader — pretty sure she was a teacher — said “no,” there was no way I could write a story about the baby shower for a student in the school newspaper, and that I should write up a preview of the coming dance instead.

The assignment sounded dumb to me. I also didn’t know the words “puff piece” yet, but I had the instinct that this was a story meant to enforce the image and ideals of the institution instead of a look at what was really going on with the people inside of it. I declined.

I went on to make and run my own middle school newspaper. Not right then, but the following year.

Talk about burying the lead, though. A story about how I got into journalism is fine, I guess. Today, as abortion rights in this country seem ready to crumble, I’m thinking about the part of the story I’d meant to tell back then — and all of the questions I didn’t ask at the time.

I wonder what my pregnant friend thought about having a baby. Anyone could guess well enough how the teachers felt and how the school felt and how her parents felt. If there were a way she could tune all of that out, how did she really feel about it?

I wonder if anyone had talked to her about options available to her in that moment? I wonder if anyone had told her she had any choice at all? My best guess is no.

Health class in the ’90s included a lot of talk about deodorant and showering. There were old-school projectors and diagrams showing people’s guts, and sometimes they showed sex organs and a offered a medical explanation of how babies are made.

Waves of snickering would swell and crest when those slides came up. I remember it was difficult to ignore muttered jokes — or not to make my own — and pay much attention to the sharp, sometimes insulting white-haired teacher trying to tell a bunch of middle schoolers who didn’t like her about their own bodies.

Pretty sure the penis graffiti on the walls was textbook — at least textbook-inspired.

And throughout that class, the brief birth control curricula was heavy on abstinence. Do I even need to spell it out here that this was not effective?

Distracted by schemes to get hot pizza slices, I never did write the story of the baby shower we held during the 30 or 40 minutes or so we had allotted for lunch, the paper flowers we made to supplement the real yard ones we stole, the candy, the big pickles that came in bags, the non-caffeinated soda.

How did we know so little about everything, and yet somehow have the bit of knowledge that pregnant people aren’t supposed to drink much caffeine? I’d hazard that it’s because there’s historically been more emphasis and information on ways people can mess up when they’re pregnant.

We knew more about how you could be a bad mom, a bad woman or girl, than how you could either actually be a parent or choose, as a child yourself, something else.

My friend and I didn’t see each other again after that school-year ended.

I don’t know if she went to high school.

Assemble those pieces: Little information about sex, no talk of birth control, no support for a student-mom, deep institutional shaming of young people who become pregnant, no information about reproductive choices, no explanation of parenting.

It was all more or less shrouded, but it was also somehow right in front of us, and growing day by day.

If I could change that past just by writing it, I would tell you a story about my friend who was treated with compassion and respect, and offered care. That people had talked her through her options and helped her to a doctor’s office without pressure or judgment. That she’d been able to attend the concluding weeks of middle school without a bunch of smack-talking and side-eye from the people in charge. That if she chose to become a parent, there were plenty of resources around to help her make it happen.

And that she’d never been made to feel like it was so easy to become, at just 13, a shameful reminder of stacked failing policies.

In the decades since, I’ve encountered a lot of people who are making those things happen, fighting for better health class information, respect for young parents, public schools for teens who could also bring their kids, as well as abortion rights and access. The work of many advocates pushed the United States forward in policy and perspective.

That fresh growth is what’s preventing us from washing out to a more ignorant decade. We can’t go back.

Marisa Demarco is the editor-in-chief of Source New Mexico, which first published this commentary.

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