Family Planning Isn’t a Condom and a Pamphlet

Sharon August 30th, 2011

Over the last two weeks, my family has considered or accepted two foster placements that fell through - both of them sets of five children.  The first group consisted of five kids - 5, 4, 3, 1 and due any minute.  The second consisted of five children 6 1/2 to 5 1/2 weeks.  Both mothers were in their early 20s - the latter only 21.

Perhaps predictably, when I talk about these children (and we thought that the second group would be coming to us for the better part of a day), everyone’s first reaction is to be appalled at the fact that these young women have so many children that they can’t take care of.  I understand that - and the degree to which these children play on every stereotype about poor women.  Quite a number of people who heard about these kids spoke of the merits of forced sterilization - and those were some of the milder comments.  Despite the fact that I understood where they were coming from, and certainly could wish for the sake of both mothers and kids that they would choose to limit future fertility, the reactions also frustrated me, because so much of the emphasis was placed on “get these women some birth control” and so little on creating circumstances that would enable them to make different choices.

This resonates with me for several reasons.  The first was that instinctively, I felt very protective of these women - whatever their choices, they were going to be the mothers of children I cared for, and the rush to judgement bothered me on those grounds, regardless of its legitimacy or illegitimacy.  The second was that the “get those women some depo-provera” reactions struck me as revealing more about the speakers and about the assumptions we make from a still-comparatively wealthy and secure perspective than they do about any particular external reality.  Indeed, the circumstances of the poorest and most vulnerable women in America (and the poorest and most vulnerable people are almost always women and children) may have much more to do with our future than we think they will.  In order to have a future where women have choices about their fertility, we will have to recognize that family planning doesn’t begin in the clinic - it begins well ahead of that.

Let’s think about what needs to happen for women to control their fertility fully, and to make “good choices.”:

1. They need to have the full ability to give consent - to say “no” and have that “no” respected.  That means they must have men in their lives who wholly respect and support women, they must respect themselves enough to believe that their “no” should be honored.  They must be safe from domestic violence and sexual violence in the whole of their lives.  They must live in a society that supports women, including poor women and young women and women who are labelled negatively for their choices and  one that believes in making them safe and helping them achieve consent.

2.  The circumstances of women’s lives must be such that they do not have to trade sex for food, a place to sleep, basic comfort, safety, food for their children, or other needed supports, because those who depend on sex to get those things cannot say “no” or demand that contraception be used or safe sex be practiced.

3. Women need good access to medical care, both preventative and urgent.  They need to not be afraid that doctors will report them to immigration, will criticize their lives or judge their bodies and lifestyles harshly.  They need to be able to get medical care when they need it, without fear of losing a job because they took time off.  They need to have accessible care in their communities in places they can get to with people who treat them well.  They need to not have to walk through protesters and harassers in order to get basic reproductive and sexual health care.  They need to have full access to a full range of medical care - including treatment for substance abuse and mental illnesses that cloud judgement.

4. Women need to be educated about risks and benefits, and have a balanced, non-condescending, respectful presentation of information in languages they can understand.  They need to be able to afford reproductive and sexual medical care, and any devices or treatments they need.  They need know how to use these things safely and well.  At the same time, the power to control their bodies has to be placed respectfully in their hands - that includes the power of bodily integrity, the power to choose the kinds of medical care they will use, and the ability to make decisions about what they do and do not put in their bodies.

5. As children, girls and boys both need families to love and care for them, and to learn ways of receiving love and care that don’t involve giving birth to children.  They need to know, as they grow, that some adult will continue to be there for them and that others will provide love and care into adulthood, that they will have a place in the world and don’t have to invent that place wholly and alone.

6. Boys need to be taught to respect women, to respect the integrity of women’s bodies, and that fathering is an active verb, not a sexual act.  They need to see men who care for and nurture children. and to receive the message that they are fully responsible for their children and their partners.  They need to be able to choose love actively, not sex reflexively, and to honor and respect women and men.

7. We must respect the right of women to make choices about their bodies that we would not make.  ”Choice” does not mean “the requirement to have an abortion when everyone thinks you should” - any more than it means “no right to choose abortion.”  ”Family planning” doesn’t mean “give all poor black teenage girls an IUD” it means “allow women to make decisions, and then respect them.  That means allowing for people to choose differently than you would, and allowing for errors of judgement.  Coercion does not make women freer, and it doesn’t enable them to make better choices - fundamentally a society that respects and believes in women doesn’t have to approve of every decision women makes, but it must respect their right to make it.

8. In order for men and women to make good choices, society has to model good choices. We cannot take the most vulnerable, poorest, least well-educated people in our society and say to them “you made lousy choices and we will judge you and punish you” - society’s choices in regard to its poorest people have not been good either.  When we demand that people take responsibility for themselves, we must remember that someone failed to take responsiblity before - someone failed to adopt the 12 year old girl who eventually became a mother of five.  Someone failed to provide funding for the drug clinics that might have helped her get off drugs.  Someone taught the fathers and mothers the messages they learned about sex and children.  A thousand of us might have stepped up at any time and changed the way this worked - and each of us did not.  A whole society, a whole culture might have stepped up and offered more.  Those choices deserve judgement too - and they deserve consideration as we enter an era of less wealth and fewer resources. We are, in the end, mostly held responsible for our choices - but who pays the price changes over time.  Who will it be next time?

I don’t know either of the women in question - I may never meet either one.  I do not claim that I know anything of their personal circumstances.  I do know this, however, that if want to be able to care for our children in an era of diminishing resources, it will require sustained and conscious choice from all of us.  If we want to take care of the most vulnerable in our society, if we want to enable future generations to do better, despite our difficulties, we must provide supports that our society presently does not for many poor women.  As more of us become poor, as the future of our own sons and daughters is implicated, perhaps we can begin to do better - but we ought to have done better already, and must recognize the consequences of our own bad choices, both collectively and individually.


30 Responses to “Family Planning Isn’t a Condom and a Pamphlet”

  1. Marie says:


    Thanks so much for this thoughtful and articulate post. As the adoptive mother of a 10-month-old soon to be adoptive mother of her birth sibling, due in 7 weeks…I get many similar comments about our daughter’s birth mother. And I echo all of your thoughts and views. Thank you so much for encouraging folks to think outside of their own perspective and look at the broader view. I’ll be sharing this selectively with some of our tribe.

    Thanks again and all the best for your family, as it is now, and for the ways it will grow around your new undertaking of Foster Parenting.

  2. Thrift Store Mama says:

    I am one of those people who, at first, gets annoyed and almost mad when I hear of a 21 year old with five children. I think of the drain on society and most of all the profound effect the mother’s poor choices can have on her children.

    But I know it is more complex than that. I know that and you pointed it out so eloquently. So, in the interim while more women learn they have control over their choices, and respect for their bodies, and society can help them get out of situations of domestic violence and situations where they don’t have to trade sex for shelter . . . WHAT do we do in the meantime ?

    Because everytime they have another baby, that is yet another life that has to be “rescued” for lack of a better word.

    For now, I will keep doing the things I do to support women and children: monetary donations to a breastfeeding center, goods in kind to a pregnancy aid center, and prayers. Lots of prayers. But as soon as I have a thought of annoyance when I see a young woman struggling with several children on the subway or in the grocery store, I will also follow that thought with a small prayer for her. A prayer that these children are the result of a choice and if not, then a prayer for the mother . . . and the children.

  3. Mark says:

    Sounds like your 5 and 6 would solve our family planning debacle all by themselves. Or at least drastically alter the circumstances and the outcome later in life. Thanks for your insight.

  4. Tara says:

    These are the thoughts that go recklessly careening around my brain every time I hear “blah blah blah welfare mothers…”. Thank you for putting it all neatly in one place for me, since I seem to get so angry in those moments that I can’t say anything useful!

  5. Laura says:

    Thank you so very much for this. The CDC even recommends that women should have access to fertility information along with free access to family planning. There are many aspects of family planning other than forcing women on birth control.

    Thank you again that we need to emphasize that this is not just education for women but also for men and boys. There are two parts to play in this and one aspect that you brought up has even happened to me, you pay sex for food and shelter, this can happen in a marriage. I am free from that marriage, but if men do not know how to treat women properly…all I chock it up to at this point is that life happens.

    There needs to be better education all around thank you for putting together the many thoughts that I have on the subject.

  6. Denys Allen says:

    I think it is interesting that in “developing” countries (as we call them), every study done has shown that as you raise the educational level of women, the less children they have. No matter how much knowledge women have of birth control, their bodies, STD’s, whatever, it is only when women receive complete high school educations, college educations, and further, that they have less children.

    This is a general trend, not a rule, but I find it interesting that it occurs. Is it that the more schooling we have, the more likely we are to work in the formal economy and therefore have less time for childcare? Or are we just too tired to make babies :-) ? Does having some sort of recognition in the workforce of “well paying jobs” over-rule the urge to procreate?

    I don’t know, but it is very interesting!

  7. Jesse L says:

    Wow, Thank you for this well written article. I admit I probably would’ve probably be one of the ones that made a comment about how does someone let this happen. I know and try to remind myself that We need to do better for our children and their peers. Thank you again for your article has opened my mind.

  8. aimee says:

    um, excuse me, I couldn’t even wait long enough to read the whole article before responding (so maybe you address this further on) but each of these women - if your numbers are correct - had at least two children before the age of consent - one of them apparently gave birth at the age of thirteen. That means they were RAPED. Thirteen year olds cannot give consent, b ut many of them can get pregnant. I’m sure all of your suggestions are very good (I’ll read them in one minute here) but holy COW how can those commenters you spoke about fail to have noticed that somebody was sex with CHILDREN?

  9. aimee says:

    ok, I’ve stopped hyperventilating and actually read your list, which is excellent. I agree with everything you said, but you still didn’t QUITE address the fact that these people were not “women” when they got pregnant. They were children. You say “women” need to be educated, respected, protected, etc, and indeed they do - but they need all this when they are not yet women, but still children. I, of course, know even less than you do about these (now) women and under what circumstances they got pregnant, but I do know (alas, from personal experience) that an average twelve year old or fourteen year old is NOT CAPABLE of saying “no” to an adult man - or even to a boy just a few years older then herself.

    I think that of everything you have prescribed, the most important is educating the children - girls that they are deserving of affection without sexual contact, and boys that girls have absolute sovereignty over their own bodies.

    Best of luck with whatever you decide - I admire your decision deeply and wish you all the strength and all the support in the world.


  10. Mama Bean says:

    You are a credit to good Fostering! And, to the first commenter, you are a credit to Adoption!

    As an adult adoptee, I get very frustrated by these beastly attitudes! Because, one of those women was my mom, and she was influenced by all the things you mention, and because of that, I never got to know her. And she me.

    So, yes. To all of your post, a resounding yes. And thank-you.

  11. Grandmotherbear says:

    as a grandmother who homebirthed and breastfed her children in the face of much social disapproval (even while working outside the home we breastfed!) I know that a lot of people’s knee jerk reaction to the situations you describe is “Parenthood should not be available to such idiots/irresponsible women”. Some even go so far as to call for “licensing”. “We license cars, we license nurses, we license day care providers, why not license parenting”. And whenever I hear THAT, I wonder who will control the licensing? Maybe the horrible MIL-from-hell, or the nosy biddyboddy neighbor, or the doctor’s office employee who chose to call you in to CPS for child abuse when she overheard you telling the doctor that your family co-slept? And HOW would licensing play out? Any cold, emotionally abusive millionaire can have children, but a poor-but loving teenager with supportive family can’t? I really enjoyed reading your article and yes, yes, and yes, all of your points are so valid.

  12. Robyn M. says:

    Uh… damn, that was one fine read. Thank you.

  13. Mitty says:

    Hear! Hear! We do all need to do better. One thing you didn’t mention is that rape and torture of women and girls is presented nightly as “entertainment” in our society. Watch a few minutes of TV if you don’t believe it. (No, I’m not entirely anti-TV, but I think we should all take a good look at the values extolled-openly or slyly- in the majority of programming.) And I think we need to take seriously your quick line about treatment being needed for drug and mental health issues. These lead to many tragic circumstances, but we have never had adequate drug or MH treatment systems in this country, and the ragtag bits we do have are being gutted. In my state, entire programs serving hundreds each have been eliminated, and human service workers are getting pink slips monthly. The average citizen would rather blame the choices of the suffering than see society prioritize different values. Rant over!

  14. dixiebelle says:

    Thank you.

  15. Jyotsna says:

    Sharon, thank you for sharing. I missed out of some of your points as a child. I did not grow up being respected as a girl. My choices were only accepted if my parents accepted them. I was house cleaner, dish washer, dinner maker and clothes washer from an age of 13, because no one else in the house did this. But even those hard put hours were not valid for me being me. I had to accept my father’s authority, and my mother backed down to my father even though she was highly educated. I’m a single mother today, to many of my own faults, and an adoptive mother to my great happiness. As hard as my life has been, I love being with my children and I see a much better future for them. I’m writing this out because I know there is hope for everyone, and with some support, we can get to be the parents our children need. I hope there will be all of those things you mentioned for all girls and boys as they grow up. Boys are disconnected from their families at a very young age because their father’s don’t respect the boys mother.

    All I can think of is this disconnect between men and women, and how this plays into the problems that young single mothers have, who have lost their children to the foster care system. Having to trade sex for food and housing is horrid. As another one of those posters, I was in such a marriage. I’m also out now, but actually living independently became increasingly more difficult. I’m under-educated, and really wishing I had finished my one last year of college. What a difference it would have made in mine and my children’s lives. But I didn’t have two penny’s to rub together in my last year and withdrew from my classes and moved home then took a job at Pizza Hut.

    At my son’s 9th grade open house tonight, I explained to one of his teachers that I missed my bachelor’s degree by 1 year, and I don’t want my son to have the same problem. I asked him to call me if my son’s grades drop below B+ so I can get him help to pull up his grades. If my son and daughters didn’t have a supportive and learning home, they would have no hope. If parents are fighting and children are hiding under their covers at night, waiting for the fighting to die down so they can finish their school work…what hope do they have? I remember this so clearly as a teenager. I graduated from high school, but many of my assignments were turned in late. I didn’t know how to study because my parents never sat down with me to teach me how, and this same habit followed me into college. It lead to extreme struggles.

    Creating supportive environments in a child’s home so they can be free of fear, free of verbal and physical abuse and full of love, and cherished; every child would have the brightness of a Harvard’s graduate.

  16. Eileen says:

    I believe that there is a point in our lives when we must take responsibility for our actions. Having five children without any thought of how one will take care of them is not behaving in an appropriate manner.

    I fully believe in reproductive choice. But I also believe that if one chooses to have a child that one is obliged to be responsible for her or him. One child may be the result of ignorance-but five? C’mon. In every community where I havel lived, Planned Parenthood has outreach programs to educate first time mothers and provide free birth control to those in financial need.

    Education is important, access to birth control is important-but let us not forget personal responsibility.

  17. Nicole says:

    I’m like to live in the fantasy you descrive, Sharon, but as you said elsewhere — just because we can doesn’t mean we will. Things have gotten a lot better for women in my lifetime and I hope they get better yet, but we have a long way to go before reaching such parity. In the meantime safe, effective and available female birth control which doesn’t require the consent or even the knowledge of the male can help a lot. Unfortunately our country’s puritanical attitudes make even that small step difficult. A free condom isn’t it.

    @Denys - I think they are looking for fulfillment, as we all are. A woman may find fulfillment in her career (although not always), but if one is uneducated and has no possible chance of a rewarding career, babies are one way to get there.

    @Eileen - I am with you part way. The problem is many of these young women haven’t learned how to be responsible because they’ve never had a responsible role model. We might as well ask why a kid with no legs doesn’t get up and walk.

  18. jenn lewin says:

    this is beautiful. especially #5. And “A thousand of us might have stepped up at any time and changed the way this worked – and each of us did not.” The best part of this post is the hope that it’ll inspire many more people as much as it inspires me.

  19. Sharon says:

    Aimee, I’m not sure I totally agree with you - sure, a 13 year old girl can’t give consent in a full sense, but neither can a 13 year old boy that she’s doing it with. She may have been raped, or she may have been engaged in something with someone approximately her own age that falls in a grey space of lack of competency to give consent (actually only one of the children was conceived before the age of consent in NY). That doesn’t mean she wasn’t raped, or that the situation is good, but I don’t want to call all sex between two pre-consent aged teens rape - who is raping who? Can you have a circumstance of mutual rape? If the girl is always the victim, what does that say about girls and boys? Moreover, I had sex before the age of consent (with another teenage girl, actually) and would not want those experiences to be labelled “rape” - ie, taken away from me and claimed.

    She may well have been raped, or she may have entered into a grey space that blurred issues of consent - neither one is good, and all have far-reaching implications.

    Eileen, I guess I’d like everyone to take the same level of personal responsibility we demand for the poor - under the same strained circumstances. One mother is mentally ill, the other was foster child who was never adopted - where are the support structures that will help the mentally ill mom with day to day choices? Where are the parents who should have adopted the second girl, and been raising her when she was 13. The whole “well, there’s planned parenthood” seems woefully inadequate if we hold each of us to the same standard, with those with greater capacity held up in their ability to serve others.


  20. Sarah F. says:

    Amen, Sister.

  21. Mo says:

    Very well said Sharon! You discuss a subject that is usually presented in such a contentious way so beautifully. You also present my views exactly although I could never have expressed them as concisely or articulately. Thank you!

  22. Heather says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful article. Unfortuantely, most people look for the instant easy solution that involves blaming other people.

  23. M says:

    Superb article with all the nuanced points articulately nailed. My husband and I adopted an 11 yr old girl who easily could have taken the same path as her biological mom - a girl whom I was told the “system failed” and who started degrading herself for men at a young age, and who had 5 children before she was out of teenage years. Back to our daughter: She now has smart, strong women and equally smart and kind men in her life to model after. We have high standards and expectations; and with a lot of discussion, coaching and oversight, she has thus far exceeded every one of them. She’s bright, creative, and has good character and boundaries - a privilege to parent. Please realize that I have just summarized the most exhausting, complex and rewarding 2 years of my life into a couple sentences. We have every expectation that the probable life path, based on what was originally modelled for her, has been shifted to one where she will make good choices (or at least know how to)… and when she’s 25-30, find a life partner and be an excellent parent.

  24. Brad K. says:


    A conclusion I came to a while back, was that as a nation, we don’t have a national consensus on why people *should* engage in sex, and how that relates to making babies. And why we *should* have a baby.

    I think most of the “just say no” and the chemical, mechanical, and religious variations on the theme of “disconnect the reproduction” miss the point.

    In a healthy home, a child should be taught and understand a “circle of life”. The child should have parents worthy of respect, and grow up respecting the parents, the family, and the community they live in.

    That child should understand that he or she is expected to want to become just like the parents. They should understand that sex, and babies, are a function of the family, and that is when and why to make a family.

    I lived through the “sexual revolution”, and have come to see Lily Allen’s somber video of “22″. And I have to say — promiscuity sure seems to be a function of “I want to be as decadent as the richest, most decadent people, and decadent people have sex.” Dating as a lifestyle is an expression of conspicuous consumption — decadence. Few lasting families begin by hanging out where alcohol is served commercially, or by developing impressive social skills in attracting and “winning” numbers of sex partners.

    That healthy child from the healthy family should expect to grow up to be like his or her parents — to find a responsible partner of character with good emotional bonds and good regard of the community, to want to enact in his or her own life the parenting and citizenship that the parents demonstrated.

    Because I feel that a family, whatever the count of adults involved and whatever genders, is the atom, the kernel of the community. An individual entering, oh, call it marriage, or handfasting, or (gack!) “long term relationship”, takes on a new identity, and is available for new roles in the community.

    And “making good choices” just makes sense, when a person is knowingly growing into a personhood of character and citizenship, of deliberately choosing the family values and rituals that he or she grew up with.

    I am not making a case that “sex without marriage is a sin.” Nothing that simple. I am saying that the family, the community, the nation — these exist because families do, and sex outside the family weakens everyone.

    I really don’t see an easy answer to today’s problems. There is no way to turn back the clock for the 28 year old grandmother that got her name in the Des Moines (Iowa) register somewhere around 1970 (I don’t remember precisely) — this is not a new problem. But failing to impress children with the expectations of family and community that they grow to be a responsible and proud parent and family member isn’t working well today.

    I suppose we could pay more attention to the character, discipline, and morals of those we deal with, and less to the sexy cars, the swimsuit models, and media eye candy. That might set a better example for each other and the children that will be the parents of the generation after the next one.

  25. Eva Elisabeth says:

    Thank you Sharon for one of your best posts yet (and that’s a pretty high bar)

    @Brad, thank you for your comment, it’s made me think about the abstinence argument in a different light.

  26. Brandy @ The Prudent Homemaker says:

    As a woman with a college degree, married to a husband with a degree and several more years of schooling, I find some of the above comments to be grossly inaccurate.

    I have 6 children. My oldest child is 9. Most of my children are 18-19 months apart.

    I wanted my children to be close together. I love that they have similiar interests and likes. I love that they can play together.

    My husband and I believe in abstinence until marriage.

    My husband is older; I’d like him to be around to see each of our children to get married. This is another reason I’m grateful that our children are close together.

    My sister-in-law has 7 children of her own, and currenly has 4 of them living at home-along with 7 foster children (all siblings). Good for you for being willing to open your home to a family! It’s a lot of work, but when they’re all that close, you’ll be blessed with similar interests as well, which makes planning your days a little easier.

  27. Sharon says:

    Brandy, what is it particularly that you object to? I have four biological children, all close together in age (between 20-25 months apart) - and certainly have no objection to voluntary close spacing of children. I don’t think this applies in this particular case, however - it is unlikely that one voluntarily starts one’s large family at 14. And thank you for the advice!


  28. The Prudent Homemaker says:

    Sharon, it was the following comment that especially put me off:

    “I think it is interesting that in “developing” countries (as we call them), every study done has shown that as you raise the educational level of women, the less children they have. No matter how much knowledge women have of birth control, their bodies, STD’s, whatever, it is only when women receive complete high school educations, college educations, and further, that they have less children.

    This is a general trend, not a rule, but I find it interesting that it occurs. Is it that the more schooling we have, the more likely we are to work in the formal economy and therefore have less time for childcare? Or are we just too tired to make babies ? Does having some sort of recognition in the workforce of “well paying jobs” over-rule the urge to procreate? ”

    I think the reason that people want children is that they value family. Women with college degrees don’t always have less children (I’m currently expecting my 7th). Those that value careers over family often choose to have les children or no children (one need only look to the declining birth rates in Europe and the U.S to see this, along with our later ages of marriage, in the mid-30′s, as opposed to in one’s 20′s.) Society now considers it irresponsible to get married and have children in one’s early 20′s. Yet, the later one gets married, the less children one tends to have-especially women, as their years of fertility are decreased.

    The very young women with 5 children of whom you speak are in a completely different situation. It’s inaccurate to think that that situation is the same as a woman who is married and has chosen to have a large family, and yet some of the comments pont to them as being the same. In addition, just because a woman is struggling with her children at the grocery store doesn’t mean she has had too many. It’s hard to take 3 children to the store at once! (for one thing, they don’t all fit in the cart, and then where do you put your stuff?) After I had 3 children I found it was easier to go to the store at night alone while the children stayed home with their father :) That doesn’t work for everyone (especially people who have a deployed spouse or one who works nights) but if you can do it, yes, it is easier.

  29. jami says:

    Thank you for writing so eloquently and concisely about this topic, about choice and freedoms, about acceptance, about teaching our boys to honor women, about compassion and understanding, and lastly about our personal responsibility to act.

  30. Ahavah says:

    It seems likely now that social services and the social contract in general mean nothing to a large percentage of the American people. There are an astonishing number of people who have no intention of funding any further social services and gutting the ones already available. The outcome is sadly predictable - not less but more girls and women who have no choice but to trade sex for basic needs. It amazes me that so many people think that those left with no jobs, food, shelter or medical care will just suddenly “get it together” when they shred the social safety net. Or maybe they think they’ll just lay down in the street and die? I’m doubting it. Women will do whatever they have to do to survive - as we always have.

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