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With Both COVID and Abortion Access, The Government Abandons Young People

The dignity, citizenship and humanity of young people have always been treated as unimportant or collateral in culture wars and both national and geopolitical conflicts. 

CW: r*pe, sexual assault

By Kylie Cheung 

With the new school year around the corner, the Delta variant spreading rapidly among the unvaccinated, and no guidelines still on if and when kids will be able to be vaccinated, there’s growing concern about the safety of children and young people in the coming months — all the more so following rising rates of COVID infection among children, and a recent, alarming study on young people’s vulnerability to long COVID, in particular.

Yet, in most states, within school districts and on the federal level, policymakers are willfully putting children at risk. The Biden administration has called for children under 12 to be vaccinated soon, but has also stated firmly that “we won’t lock down our schools” despite the risk to children. States like Florida and Texas, which have horrifyingly but predictably politicized mask mandates, will punish schools that require masks.

Simply put, we’re risking children’s health, safety and lives over petty politics. And unfortunately, this is an everyday reality that’s all too familiar for young people who try to seek abortion, emergency contraception, or other essential reproductive care as minors. Nearly 40 states and counting require some form of parental involvement when minors seek abortion care, regardless of whether their parents are abusive or estranged. The alternative is to somehow prove one’s maturity to a judge, as if a minor who doesn’t wish to be pregnant can simultaneously not be mature enough to have an abortion, but be mature enough to parent. Recently, Louisiana, Florida, Illinois, and others, have moved to pass or uphold parental involvement restrictions on abortion access.

In any case, the dignity, citizenship and humanity of young people have always been treated as unimportant or collateral in culture wars and both national and geopolitical conflicts — whether we’re sending children to their deaths by refusing to close schools over COVID concerns, or even supporting apartheid regimes like Israel, which has seen to 90% of children in Gaza suffering from trauma. Reproductive justice demands ensuring communities where young people can live and thrive. All of this is inextricably connected, in a capitalist system that denies financially dependent minors the ability to overcome barriers to reproductive care, and in a world governed by imperialist superpowers that treat children as collateral.

As politicians across the country — whom schoolchildren under the age of 18 weren’t even able to vote for — pontificate about whether to send kids back to school and or whether to have common sense mask requirements, or potentially send them to their deaths, kids are given no say in any of this. For young people who have tried to get abortions or overcome age requirements to get Plan B, this paradigm of being told you’re too immature to weigh in on what’s best for you, but mature enough to experience a consequence like literal death, is frustratingly familiar. 

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In recent years and especially under the last administration, detained, undocumented teenagers with unwanted pregnancies were often barred from leaving detention centers to get abortion care. In such cases, they were simultaneously adultified, condemned to suffer for the “consequences” of their actions, and infantilized, told they were too young to make a decision about whether or not they wanted to be pregnant. The double bind of adultification and infantilization to deny young people basic rights and agency is particularly weaponized against young people of color, especially Black and migrant children.

And notably, migrant women and girls face staggeringly high rates of rape and sexual assault. While someone’s deservingness of abortion and autonomy shouldn’t depend on the circumstances in which they became pregnant, the policing of migrant teens’ pregnancies was especially cruel considering some may have been impregnated by rape.

As local, state and federal governments continue to make these decisions about vulnerable young people’s lives, we offer young people virtually no resources to protect themselves — not community mask mandates to protect them from others giving them COVID, and still, no guidance on whether they can safely be vaccinated. In a similar, equally devastating vein, the policymakers who pass laws to force minors — and all people, really — to remain pregnant without their consent are the same policymakers who deny them access to accurate and inclusive sexual health education, or accessible contraception. They are the same policymakers who hack away at funding to support struggling teen parents, who gut welfare, Medicaid, affordable housing, and health care programs for children, and fail to enact policies to save children’s lives from gun violence.

It seems trite to highlight and fixate on this hypocrisy, as many liberal and white reproductive rights advocates so often do. The anti-abortion, anti-vax right-wing is united by a shared white supremacist agenda of denying health and safety to people of color, and disproportionately Black and brown communities. They’ve made it abundantly clear they care about neither consistency nor accusations of hypocrisy — they care about finding any way to coerce pregnancy, and control the reproduction of especially people of color, young people and the working poor. 

They care about exploiting new, creative ways to punish pregnant people, like Amber Abreu, who was a teenager when she faced felony charges for “procuring a miscarriage” for using abortion pills in 2007, or Brooke Skylar Richardson, who was charged with aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, child endangering, and gross abuse of a corpse after experiencing a stillbirth in 2017, shortly after her high school prom.

Yet, for all the memes liberals may share that mock so-called “pro-lifers” who “love the fetus, hate the baby,” even many “pro-choice” people have been complicit in the reproductive oppression of young people. Rapidly growing legislation restricting minors’ abortion access has seldom been a priority for reproductive rights groups. Advocates who have been vocal about the horrific, rising state-level attacks on trans youth often treat this issue of young people’s agency over their bodies and health as separate from youth abortion access, when both are rooted in denying young people’s bodily autonomy. 

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At the core of this is stigma, discomfort and shaming when it comes to young people having abortions or being sexually active, even from those who claim to be allies. It’s also more of the same, imagined superiority of adults and dehumanization and disempowerment of children. Abortion stigma has long plagued reproductive rights organizations that cower from using the word “abortion,” and opt for more palatable monikers like “reproductive freedom” — if they struggle to talk about abortion, they certainly struggle to talk about and help young people having abortions. 

And the stigma doesn’t stop there. Many of these same supposed leaders in the fight for “reproductive freedom” treat teen pregnancy as shameful, an outcome to be avoided at all costs. But the problem isn’t teen parents — it’s teens being denied wanted access to reproductive care and education. Teens who want to be parents should be supported and encouraged, and given the resources they need to parent without shame and stigma. Teens who do not want to parent, and those who do, are equally worthy of resources and bodily autonomy.

Children and minors are expected to face “consequences” — like, say, contracting COVID — as if they’re adults, while also having no say in the conditions that dictate their safety and lives. This dual adultifying and infantilizing lies at the heart of much of our mistreatment of children and youth, especially where reproductive care and bodily autonomy are concerned. If you’re outraged at how the US is jeopardizing young people with its COVID policies, you should be just as outraged by the rapidly proliferating barriers to youth abortion and reproductive health access. Both cases reflect our society’s disregard for the wellbeing of children, and the ongoing tragedy of how children are used as fodder for politics and the maintenance of white supremacy.

Kylie Cheung is an author and writer on reproductive justice, survivor justice, and health care disparities in communities of color. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung and kyliecheung.journoportfolio.com.

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