Christie Vilsack: Open dialogue needed to reduce unwanted pregnancies


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Whether I’m dining with Rotarians in Washington, Iowa, or dining with Cabinet secretaries in Washington, D.C., everyone has a story of unintended pregnancy and how it changed a life. The story may be a secret, a subject of gossip, or our own story. But the story, as well as the real-life situation, had consequences for us or people we care about.

Yet most of the stories of unintended pregnancies are stories left untold.

In my family, we recall the night my brother rolled the VW in the grocery-store parking lot, the night our son hit a deer in the Bonneville, or the time I lost a clutch on the Ohio Turnpike returning to college. But we’ve never shared stories about what went on in the back seats of those cars, and I imagine that’s true of many other families as well.

There’s secrecy and shame associated with sex — even the kind between married adults — despite the fact that it’s the reason we’re all here. It seems that the shame should be in not finding a comfortable way to talk about sexual decision-making.

Most of us have begged our parents for stories of the harrowing ride to the hospital as they tried to beat the stork, but seldom, if ever, do we ask, “Did you want to beat the stork senseless when you found out you were pregnant?”

How many of us have the nerve to ask our parents if we were planned and what was going through their minds when they found out they were going to be parents?

I grew up in a family that only talked about body parts you can see. My penance for not talking freely with our sons about anything to do with sex, for telling them to cover their eyes when a sexual scene showed up on a TV movie, is that I now travel the state talking to others about the need to address these subjects with our children and grandchildren so they can make responsible decisions.

I’m sure there are lots of parents out there who have talked with their children and grandchildren about sex-related decisions they made or didn’t make and the numerous consequences of those decisions. Maybe, but I’m not so sure.

Last year, I had a conversation about sex with a dozen people who had never met one another. We came from all walks of life. The Quad City Times sponsored our “community conversation” about unintended pregnancy, and we shared stories of how pregnancies — intended and unintended — affected our lives and the lives of loved ones.

We laughed, we teared up, and we nodded in agreement and empathy. A nurse practitioner who worked every day with women trying to prevent pregnancy couldn’t have children of her own. A legislator in a second marriage decided to have one more child with her new husband and had triplets. A couple graduated from college on time with the help of parents when they discovered an unintended pregnancy freshman year.

The first kiss, the worst date you ever had, how your parents met: These stories all set the stage and build the trust for a more difficult conversation about the colicky baby you wanted to take back, your stubborn insistence that you weren’t going to become sexually active (when in fact you already had), the rape you never told anyone about, and the undiagnosed sexually transmitted disease.

Let’s talk about it — just in case our children and grandchildren could learn something from our experiences.

Christie Vilsack is executive director of the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies and the former first lady of Iowa.

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