BY JERRY STERNBERG
The next time you find yourself sitting in a local church or synagogue, or in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, or even attending an Asheville City Council meeting, take a look around. According to 50 years of data from the federal National Survey of Family Growth, 95% of the adults gathered around you will have participated in premarital sex at some time in their life. The same must be true for legislators, judges and clergy.
When I was growing up, in the 1930s and ’40s, sex education was almost nonexistent. At some point there was supposed to be the obligatory, totally embarrassing discussion about “the birds and the bees.” It usually consisted of the admonition that “Sex is bad. Go do your homework.” The girls probably got a little more information when they had their menses, were in pain and thought they were going to bleed to death.
I have strange memories regarding sex education in those years.
When I attended Claxton School, there was a fellow student who everyone somehow knew was a “bastard.” The way the teacher treated him, relegating him to the back of the room, and the attitude of some of the students whose parents were uncomfortable with this poor kid’s mere presence in the classroom made me think he must have done something terrible.
The “literature” that gave us what sexual information we did get consisted of little comic books that had Maggie and Jiggs or Blondie and Dagwood performing lewd sex acts. Most of us didn’t understand the things they depicted, but it certainly piqued our interest.
When I was at Lee Edwards High School, there were girls in our class who simply vanished one day — and, in some cases, never returned. It was rumored that they were in “the family way” and had to go off somewhere to have it taken care of.
Solely the woman’s problem?
By the time I graduated from high school, attended college and then went into the military, sex and drinking had become rites of passage. There were admonitions about using condoms when one performed sex, but the emphasis was on preventing STDs.
When I joined the Navy, we were required to view documentaries about the consequences of unprotected sex. Sailors returning from liberty could visit a “prophylactic station” offering treatment to try to prevent venereal disease.
Never, though, was there any discussion of the possibility of unwanted pregnancy, because — apart from using condoms, which were never foolproof anyway — the responsibility for preventing pregnancy was strictly the woman’s. For the most part, if she conceived an unwanted baby, the problem was hers to solve. Meanwhile, for men, particularly married men, “safe sex” meant paying a prostitute. If she got pregnant, it was totally up to her to deal with.
In June, we celebrate Father’s Day, but back then, many men were deprived of the chance to be so honored because they had no idea that they’d fathered a child by a long-lost lover or sex worker.
By the 1960s, however, “the pill” was in widespread use, giving women more control over their own reproductive systems. Improvements in IUD technology and, later, “the morning-after pill” and medication abortions provided other options. No longer were women without resources to prevent pregnancy or to choose not to deliver an unwanted child, especially in cases of rape or incest.
Face the facts
In the 1960s, the first Planned Parenthood affiliate in North Carolina was established here in Asheville as an education-only facility. A couple of decades later I was privileged to participate, along with other concerned community members, in establishing Asheville’s first women’s medical clinic, providing health care, family planning information and abortion referrals in a nonjudgmental manner to thousands of patients each year. In 2015, we moved the clinic to a stand-alone building on McDowell Street and added abortion to the list of services offered on-site.
One of our most effective educational programs enlisted teenagers to perform short plays in Asheville and Buncombe County high schools. These presentations were designed to dispel myths and present factual information about sex in an age-appropriate way, and they were very well received.
I write all this in response to the recent dreaded announcement by the Supreme Court that abortion is no longer a constitutional right. Two of the five oh-so-righteous justices who supported this ruling have been involved in highly publicized sexual transgressions themselves.
Conservative legislators in red states, most of whom are men, have already set to work eliminating every right a woman has to prevent unwanted pregnancy. And if our right-wing North Carolina legislators follow the lead of their counterparts in other states, our clinic will no longer be able to offer abortions and could conceivably be forced to close lest, in the process of providing women’s health care, we give out information on family planning or birth control.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned abstinence as the solution to unwanted pregnancies, but apparently, that approach didn’t work out for 95% of our adult population. Hormones trump morality, and sex is highly recreational — particularly for men. So why should women be the ones who pay the price for an unwanted biological mishap?
By striking down Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has eliminated the last option many women and children had to avoid being forced to deliver an unwanted child. Many of these children, some as young as 10, are in lower-income and minority communities, and in some cases they will have no responsible person who will be able to care for them.
In 2020 there were 7,749 pregnancies reported among girls ages 15-19 in North Carolina, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. Asheville and Buncombe County accounted for 129 of those, nearly half of them in minority communities.
I don’t even want to think about how tiny the percentage of those sperm donors probably was who took any responsibility for supporting these girls: After all, unwanted pregnancy is the woman’s problem, right?
As the full impact of overturning Roe v. Wade kicks in, will our streets become populated by these abandoned offspring, some of whom will inevitably commit serious mischief in order to survive? And at that point, will the hardcore pro-birthers demand those children’s abortion-by-death-chamber — in their 24th trimester?
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. An anthology of his columns is available from Pisgah Legal Services for a $25 suggested donation. All proceeds will support the nonprofit’s work. To order your copy of The Gospel According to Jerry: 90th Birthday Edition, visit pisgahlegal.org/jerry, or send a check to: PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville, NC 28802.