Abstinence-only fosters tragedy

Last week, the story of 18-year-old Teri Rhodes came to light in the national media. Rhodes gave birth in her on-campus apartment, then suffocated the 10-minute-old baby and left it in her bathtub. Reports indicated that Rhodes, a student-athlete at Mercyhurst College, a Roman Catholic school in Pennsylvania, denied her pregnancy to everyone she knew.

A mere two days prior to the incident, moreover, she took a sports physical, during which the doctor insisted she take a pregnancy test, which she refused. Oddly enough, the doctor cleared her to play volleyball.

She was arrested and charged with murder for the death of the child, as evidence showed that the baby was born healthy. There are also numerous reports that she had searched online for unconventional ways to end the pregnancy in its later stages without seeking aid from a doctor.

I understand that most decisions a person makes in his or her life have at least some degree of fear involved. Consider that you attend school out of the fear of being inadequate in the workplace. The more fear affects an individual, however, the more irrational his decisions may be.

I was raised in a Southern, Protestant environment that included my home, church and school. I experienced the fear and pressure placed on adolescents who were coming of age to remain abstinent. There was no talk in the classroom or from the pulpit of the various prophylactics available for use. Instead, girls were given promise rings and boys signed symbolic contracts to remain faithful to a nearly unachievable standard that fought against every genetic instinct in our bodies.

Unfortunately, it seems that this form of sexual education did not prepare many of the youth to face reality. I knew many girls who became pregnant while still in school. They were expelled from the school and shunned in church. At the church I attended, there was a policy that if girls decided to return to the church or retain their membership, they were required to apologize and confess their sin before the congregation. This was done to “heal” the rift between that member and the church. Even then, I never understood exactly why they needed their apology. In fact, it seemed only to embarrass the girls and fuel other members of the church with dinner-table gossip. I can’t imagine how terrifying and shameful the experience must have been to them. I also can’t recall ever seeing any men required to appear before my congregation to share their shortcomings as adulterers or alcoholics.

Was I the only one who noticed that the God we were gathered to worship came to humanity as a child of an unwed teenage mother? The church taught of Mary’s difficulties, however, for when our own sisters and daughters found themselves in similar circumstances, a scarlet-letter mentality was enforced. Not every church handles it the same way, but when shame and scorn are the result of seeking help within your community, one can see the predicament faced by Rhodes and women like her.

Unfortunately, it is likely that nobody will ever know the truth of why Rhodes felt the need to hide her pregnancy. Now that this is a criminal case, she will likely be labeled “insane” by the defense or vilified by the prosecution.

But there is a chance that she was just terrified of losing her scholarship and being ostracized from her community, and as a result, she reacted irrationally. I am not suggesting that Rhodes is an innocent bystander, or that she should not be held responsible for her actions, but if there had been more nurturing and compassionate adults to help guide her, two lives might have been saved.

More importantly, this tragedy is not just about Rhodes. This is about all the women who need encouragement and support, not condescension and judgment, from their communities and families with whatever decisions they make.

Curtiss Gibson is a senior

majoring in English.