Falling Short: Sexual Health and LGBTQ+ Youth

This guest post comes from the Planned Parenthood Arizona Education Team’s Casey Scott-Mitchell, who serves as the community education & training coordinator at Planned Parenthood Arizona.

We know most young people in Arizona are not getting sex education in their schools — or if they are, it is often abstinence-only, not fact-based, and not inclusive of all students’ identities. Comprehensive sex education programs do a better job of approaching sexuality from a more holistic perspective covering a range of topics such as STDs, relationships, birth control methods, reproductive anatomy, and abstinence, at an age-appropriate level and utilizing fact-based information. Additionally, comprehensive programs are often more inclusive of students’ identities — specifically various gender identities and sexual orientations.


Schools should be responsible for educating all students about keeping themselves healthy.


However, even with comprehensive sex ed, we often fall short of inclusivity when addressing topics of pregnancy prevention and choices, healthy relationships, and sexual health.

As educators and providers of sexuality information to young people, when we talk about pregnancy we often slip into language that assumes (heterosexual and cisgender) identities, which leaves many folks out of the conversation. We all have a gender identity, a sexual orientation, and sexual behaviors that we engage in — sometimes those pieces line up in a way that is “predictable,” but oftentimes, they don’t.

For example, in working with a student who is a cisgender girl, how often are we going to automatically assume she is attracted to boys, and that she will then be having vaginal/penile sex and therefore be at risk for unintended pregnancy? The answer is often. Continue reading

Ending a Wanted Pregnancy: Jacqueline’s Story

The following guest post comes to us via Jacqueline M.

My name is Jacqueline. I’m 31, part of the upper-middle class, happily married to the love of my life, and I had a second-trimester abortion.

My world turned upside down on February 4, 2019. At my 19.5-week ultrasound, the tech became strangely quiet following several minutes of joking with my husband and me. I thought nothing of it as my eyes obsessed over every inch of my little girl on the screen. The ultrasound complete, I cleaned the cold gel off of my belly and eagerly dressed to go speak with my PA.


“As all of my daydreams about raising a child vanished in an onslaught of medical terminology, my husband and I knew one thing: We could not put our daughter through the brief life of agony that awaited her.”


When she walked in the door, I excitedly gushed my questions and observations, which she answered without the enthusiasm I had come to expect during my appointments with her. When I finally paused, she looked me in the eye and said, “We’ve noticed what looks to be an omphalocele. Your daughter will need surgery the moment she is born to put her intestines back inside of her, but there is a 90 percent survival rate. There is also a 3-inch cyst on your ovaries. It’s so large that we can’t tell whether it’s on one or both, and we need to send you to a high-risk prenatal doctor.”

Sad and afraid, but determined, we went to see the high-risk OB the very next day. I was given a detailed level 2 ultrasound by a tech, and I took in all of the tiny details of my little girl that I wasn’t able to enjoy from the quality of my routine images: her tiny toes, a dainty hand, the small curve in her button nose. I gobbled her up, my daughter, my first child, still completely unaware of how terribly wrong my pregnancy had gone. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Syphilis Outbreak’s Youngest Victims

Arizona is officially in the midst of a syphilis outbreak that in 2018 claimed the lives of 10 infants. That’s the most babies to die of congenital syphilis in the state’s recent history. In addition to the 10 deaths, another 43 babies were born with syphilis, which can cause severe health problems.

The word “congenital” simply means the baby was born with syphilis after acquiring the infection in the womb. The bacteria that cause syphilis can cross the placenta to reach the fetus — and will do so in 80 percent of pregnancies in which syphilis is untreated. As many as 40 percent of babies infected with syphilis during pregnancy will be stillborn or will die soon after birth. The condition can also cause rashes, bone deformities, severe anemia, jaundice, blindness, and deafness. The good news is that congenital syphilis is almost completely preventable. When it is administered at the appropriate time and at the correct dosage, penicillin is 98 percent effective.


Prenatal care must include screening for syphilis, which can be cured with penicillin but can be deadly if not treated.


Syphilis used to be the most feared STD out there, but rates have been plunging since the discovery of effective antibiotics during the first half of the 20th century. By 2000, syphilis rates hit an all-time low, and many health experts thought the United States was at the dawn of the complete elimination of the disease. But it’s been making a comeback, and between 2013 and 2017 nationwide congenital syphilis rates more than doubled, with the number of affected babies at a 20-year high.

Areas in the southern and western United States have been especially hard hit. Arizona has the sixth-highest congenital syphilis rate in the country, after Louisiana, Nevada, California, Texas, and Florida. Our congenital syphilis rate doubled between 2016 and 2017 — in terms of sheer numbers, most of these cases originated in Maricopa County, but officials say it’s disproportionately affecting rural areas. Gila County, which is east of Phoenix and home to the old mining town Globe, has the highest syphilis rate in the state. Continue reading

Book Club: Shout Your Abortion

Shout Your Abortion hit the book shelves in time for us to celebrate the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22, 2019. That Supreme Court decision (finally) recognized that abortion is a normal part of a woman’s reproductive life and a right guaranteed by the Constitution. The book, edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes, presents the real-life abortion “shouts” of 44 women and how they think about what is typically a routine medical procedure.

Shout Your Abortion, edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes

In 1973, when Roe was decided, eight years had already passed since my (illegal) abortion, and I was raising two daughters. I was relieved to know that women, including my two kiddos, would never again need to risk their lives to get reproductive health care they might need.

I didn’t think we would ever go back to unsafe abortions or forced motherhood. It never occurred to me (and many other women) that staying quiet and just getting on with life would leave an open mic for anti-abortion zealots to chip away at our protection. Alas, we were wrong.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund article

Fast forward 46 years. “Stop! We’re not having it! Listen to us! We’ve had abortions!” Minority anti-abortion voices are no longer drowning out the majority of the American people (72 percent) who do not want to see Roe overturned and are taking action to prevent it, including our book’s “shouters.”

The genesis of the book was Amelia Bonow’s Facebook post about her abortion, passed along by Lindy West as #ShoutYourAbortion, prompting a deluge of “shouters.” Continue reading

The Racist Roots of the War on Sex Ed

JBS-supported billboard accusing Martin Luther King Jr. of communist ties. Image: Bob Fitch photography archive, Stanford University Libraries

The 1960s were a decade of dramatic social and political changes, many of them catalyzed by the shock of assassinations or the dawn of culture-changing technology like the birth control pill.

It would seem, then, that by the end of the decade it would have taken an especially grave development to prompt warnings of a “subversive monstrosity,” a “mushrooming program” that was forced upon an unwitting public through an insidious campaign of “falsehoods, deceptions, pressures, and pretenses.”

The John Birch Society published those words 50 years ago this month in their January 1969 newsletter. What atrocity spurred JBS founder Robert Welch Jr. to write this clarion call? No trigger warning is needed for this one. He was alerting his readers to the “filthy Communist plot” known as sex education.


It wasn’t just premarital and extramarital sex that stirred anxieties. So, too, did interracial sex.


Welch’s alarmist language was common currency in an organization that was known for its anti-Semitism and its espousal of conspiracy theories. They were traits that kept the Birchers’ numbers modest throughout the 1960s and ’70s — an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members — and led to the group’s decline in later decades. The JBS, a far-right group that advocated for limited government, got its name from a Baptist missionary and military pilot who was killed by Chinese communists — an early martyr of the Cold War.

However fringe they may have been, Welch’s words signaled the beginning of intensive backlash against sex ed among a broader base of conservatives. Within months, that backlash put organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Medical Association on the defensive. As the debate raged, the NEA sought allies nationwide in churches, civic groups, and the media to save sex ed. By the following year, the NEA was reporting that sex ed programs had been “canceled, postponed, or curtailed” in 13 states and were under scrutiny in 20 state legislatures. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been with us since the dawn of time — or at least since the dawn of sex. And, as we continue to hone our approach to preventing and treating them, STDs will always grab headlines, whether the news is bad or good.

The Good

Can the HIV epidemic be stopped?

For more than a decade, AIDS, the illness caused by HIV, was seen as a death sentence. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that antiretroviral drugs kept the virus in check, prolonging lifespans for people with access to these medications and transforming the infection into a chronic disease. Now, those dreaming of an end to HIV are seeing reasons for optimism. No, a cure isn’t in the works — but many researchers believe we can end the epidemic through prevention.

Ending HIV transmission will take money and an efficient health care infrastructure, but we have the tools to do it. It starts with expanding access to HIV testing — an estimated 15 percent of Americans with HIV are unaware of their status. The next step is to ensure that everyone testing positive has access to antiretroviral drugs. When used correctly, these medications keep viral levels so low that the chances of transmission are virtually nonexistent. More recently, medications called PrEP — pre-exposure prophylaxis — enable people without HIV to protect themselves from infection. Condoms, of course, are a time-tested prevention tool. Gathered together, we have a pretty mighty arsenal. Here in the United States, we could stop HIV transmission in its tracks in just a handful of years. Of course, people all around the world will need access to testing and treatment to halt this scourge on a global level. Continue reading

Due Protections: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act at 40

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977. Photo: Lynn Gilbert

Today, Susan Struck’s political positions are nothing that would stick out in a red state like Arizona. A few years ago, she joined the chorus of support for the once-threatened A-10 fighter jet program at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In a 2010 article on immigration, a writer noted her concerns about automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children.

Despite the rightward tilt that would be assigned to her views today, Struck was once at the center of a fight for reproductive justice, a cause taken up by a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, back when “The Notorious RBG” was still a lawyer for the ACLU. It was that fight that led to Ginsburg’s involvement in the writing of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, a landmark piece of legislation that turns 40 this month.


Despite 40 years of protections, pregnancy discrimination hasn’t gone away.


Now retired in an Arizona ranch community, Struck first arrived in the Copper State at the end of the 1960s, when she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Davis-Monthan. She told Elle in a 2014 interview that she reveled in her newfound independence from the family and church she left in Kentucky. “She went on the Pill and stopped attending confession,” the article recounts, and she spent her free time enjoying her sexual freedom and the chance to experience Tucson’s foothills in a newly acquired Camaro.

Still, Struck wanted more excitement, so she asked to be sent to Vietnam. She was assigned to Phù Cát Air Force Base, where she quickly hit it off with an F-4 pilot — and ended up pregnant. Struck understood that the Air Force gave officers in her situation two choices: get an abortion or be honorably discharged. It was 1970 then, still a few years before Roe v. Wade, but the armed forces had made abortion legal ahead of civilian society. Continue reading