Commentary: Why it is critical to talk to your kids about abortion rights

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Wade case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, in Washington, DC. - Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images North America/TNS

With the reversal of Roe v. Wade, one group that may feel unsure about how and whether to discuss the decline of women’s rights is parents. It’s tempting to assume that adult issues such as abortion are inappropriate or irrelevant from a child’s perspective. But as a developmental psychology professor and a (currently pregnant) parent, I would argue that it is critical to talk with your school-age children about abortion rights.

Children are often ready to process more information and at younger ages than you might think. Making them active participants in understanding inequities in society is important for their ability one day to address those injustices. At what age can children begin such talks? The truth is, children in early grades may be more prepared than some adults are to grapple with the subject.

Children are sponges, soaking up the surrounding culture. It is better for them to approach the subject with a parent — within a coherent narrative where they can ask questions — rather than piecing things together from the playground or the media. More importantly, there are affirmative reasons to have these conversations. Children are future participants in society. Shielding them from reality is not productive for their own development, or for nurturing their ability to engage with and positively impact complex real-world challenges.

This advice is not limited to abortion rights. For example, some parents shy away from talking about racism, thinking if they don’t mention it, their kids will not grow up racist. However, this “colorblind” approach to parenting (often observed among white American parents) is not effective at combating racism. A better approach is to help children understand — and be motivated to change — historic patterns of discrimination and inequality.

Of course, parents may feel squeamish about a conversation involving abortion, perhaps feeling that their children are not ready for sex education. But the heart of the issue — personal rights and autonomy, health care access, inequality — is really not about the mechanics of conception at all. It is possible to have these conversations with your children while revealing as much or as little about sex as you choose.

I began talking to my 8-year-old daughter about Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court draft opinion was first leaked in May and we are again talking about it now. There are many ways a conversation about these events might go, depending on the individual parent and child involved. In choosing my own words, I tried to highlight themes that seemed important for understanding the bigger-picture issues, yet were appropriate for my child’s developmental stage.

I started with a brief history of Roe v. Wade, and explained how someone could choose to end a pregnancy. There is a lot of evidence, of course, that in the absence of access to legal and safe abortions, people still pursue abortions at great risk to their personal health. The idea that people could be put in a position to need to harm their own bodies because the government banned a safe medical procedure is a narrative children can comprehend. This lack of personal and bodily autonomy likely feels as outrageous to children as it does to adults.

I next talked about equal access to health care. We looked at a map of where abortion likely would and would not be banned. Children tend to be very concerned with fairness; this map clearly feels unfair because people’s rights would vary from one state to the next. Likewise, inequities across people and groups are important for children to learn about, and object to. We talked about how for people with ample resources, traveling hundreds of miles to another state might be undesirable, yet only a minor inconvenience. But for many people who live in poverty, or who can’t miss work or leave their children with another caregiver, this travel may be impossible.

It may be a lot for one sitting, but discussing this massive inequality across groups can also naturally lead into an important conversation about the disheartening lack of a social safety net to provide for children and families born into poverty in America.

I’ll note that at the time of this conversation, I also happen to be in the third trimester of pregnancy (with a very wanted baby). It might sound odd to talk to your kid about abortion over your large pregnant belly. Yet, I found quite the opposite was true.

My current pregnancy has not been an easy one, and my daughter has had a front-row seat to complications that I’ve experienced. She instantly understood the potential harm of forcing a person go through an unwanted pregnancy — including the strain on their own health and the cascading effects this can have on those around them. My kid is thrilled to welcome a baby sibling. But she also can see that the choice of pregnancy should not be taken lightly, nor forced on anyone who does not want it.

Finally, there may be something intuitive-sounding about the narrative of a pregnant mother talking to a daughter about lady stuff, but I also have a son. At age 2, he is too young for this conversation, I submit. But when he is older, I plan to have the same conversation with him. Issues of equity, health access, bodily autonomy and personal rights are not just for girls. Society loses if boys are shielded from the terrifying knowledge of the decline of people’s rights.

Parenting can be stressful, overwhelming, and undersupported. Just getting through the day can seem more urgent than pursuing a challenging conversation with your children. Yet, the time for these conversations is now.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Katherine Kinzler is a professor and the chair of the psychology department at the University of Chicago and author of “How You Say It.”

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