“Who are they to tell me I can’t do it?” Teen sexual health in Romania, US and The Netherlands

The sting of women’s disempowerment is heavy in the air as American women wake up to news that their rights have been hampered yet again. “US signs anti-abortion declaration with group of largely authoritarian governments.”

In Europe, Romanian women lack essential information and struggle with access to abortions. Comparatively, the Netherlands is a safe haven; a Dutch woman relishes her freedom resulting from liberal policy.

“What sex education?!”  A peek at the numbers

The current struggles of women in Romania and the US, where conservative values are flourishing, are not new. The Netherlands, a highly systematic, liberal and communicative country, reported 3.2 teen mothers per 1000 in 2015, the smallest number of teenage pregnancies in Europe, and 154 abortions per 1000 live births in 2018. In America, Pew research statistics cited 18 teenage mothers per 1000 Americans. Additionally, the US reported 186 abortions per 1000 live births in 2016, which can be attributed to racial disparities.

Contemporary Romania lacks sex education in schools, which normalizes sex as taboo. According to Elena Constantinescu, a Romanian doctor, this is reflected in high teenage pregnancies and abortion rates, with abortion as the principal contraception method. Recent statistics confirm this: according to Save the Children, Romania reported 33.7 teenage mothers per 1000, one of the highest rates in Europe. Additionally, Statista reported 359 abortions in 2018 for every 1000 live births.

In Romania, Dr. Elena encountered young girls whose parents  never spoke with them about sexual matters, due to their lack of understanding of the importance of sexual education: “The problem is that their mindset does not catch up with the modern developments of society.” Indeed, Save the Children reports that 6 out of 10 teenage mothers never received sexual education.

Similarly, conservatism is leaving its mark on teenagers’ access to information in the US. Kristen [Not her real name], a schoolteacher who educates students about the reproductive system, tiptoes around the issue of whose responsibility it is to teach sex ed: “If students have questions regarding reproduction, I will answer them factually.” Kristen avoids talk about abortion in class, in order to ensure she keeps her job, “due to conservative parents.”

Kristen reports that one third party teaches sex ed using an abstinence approach. “Students come into class horrified by photos they have seen in the program,” she says, and they are not taught about birth control methods or safe sex. Instead, they are shown graphic repercussions of STDs.

In contrast, since the end of 2012, schools in the Netherlands are obliged to implement proper sex education. The Dutch sex education curriculum now covers information regarding contraception, unwanted pregnancies, and STDs. Therefore, the nature of sex education in the Netherlands can be seen as responsible for its very low number of teen pregnancies in the EU, as previously mentioned.

Religious obstacles

Religion is the backbone of Romanian and American values, which has consequences for women’s access to resources regarding sexual health. Dr. Elena stated that this has caused clinics and hospitals to refuse to perform abortions in Romania. Unfortunately, “women are the ones who have the least say, this is visible in the high numbers of teen pregnancies and widespread lack of sexual education,” says Dr. Elena.

This is supported by a study done by Dr. Strayhorn, which found that religion does in fact impact teen pregnancy and abortion rates, further confirming Kristen and Elena’s ideas regarding conservatism and religion.

“I overhear the craziest stories from students who grow up in the most religious households!” Kristen exclaimed with a giggle.

The study found that states with higher religiosity scorings have higher teen pregnancy rates and lower abortion rates. Additionally, contraceptives are discouraged in highly religious areas in the US, which strengthens Dr. Elena’s statement that teenage girls and women are disempowered by inadequate education.

In the Netherlands, there is also a religious influence concerning the dissemination of information on abortion. Pro-life organizations, such as Cry for Life, are protesting and shouting “murderers” at abortion clinics, where women are intimidated and harassed. Adrie [Not her real name], an abortion survivor, did not experience this herself, but “saw these organizations spreading false information through the internet,” such as infertility after abortion.

“There are risks with every medical operation and becoming infertile is indeed a potential harm of abortion”, says Adrie, “but it is not true that you are immediately infertile after having an abortion.”

Recent outcry

US leaders insist that wearing a mask is an individual’s right to personal choice, yet they limited women’s choice by signing the Geneva Consensus Declaration, an “anti-abortion declaration,” according to journalist Julian Borger. Equally troubling is how Romanian women struggle to find doctors who will perform an abortion.

According to the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation, the opposite happens in the Netherlands, where 30,000 abortions are legally performed every year. Qualified doctors are allowed to perform abortions in 14 designated clinics or hospitals. Abortion has been legal since 1984, and according to the study The Attitude of the Dutch People towards Abortion, 72% of the Dutch people are in favour of abortion rights. Adrie agrees with this: “I’ve never heard of young people that don’t understand women’s right to abortion.”

The turmoil regarding sexual health, teen pregnancy and abortion rates is  high in conservative societies around the world, such as the US and Romania. However, the Netherlands reports lower rates, which could be explained by diminished sexual taboos and effective sex education programs in school. It’s important to note that anti-abortion movements still exist in the Netherlands, but are undermined by assertive liberal values.

We found, however, that women’s disempowerment is rampant regardless of political systems. Even seemingly sophisticated systems, such as the US, have recently regressed.

Ultimately, the power a woman has left includes protesting in rage and dissent, in hopes of gaining autonomy over her body.

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