These Tennessee Teens Got Together to Fight Their State’s Abortion Ban

Lily remembered the sex education she had in high school. “We went over the human body,” Lily said. “We didn’t really learn about anything involving sex. We just learned about sexually transmitted diseases and that’s it.” To Lily, the abstinence-only curriculum doesn’t make sense. Not only does Tennessee have a high teenage pregnancy rate, but abstinence-only education has been shown to be ineffective. Lily said it’s trying to solve a problem that she doesn’t see as an actual problem: teenagers having sex. “They will have sex,” she said. “You should teach about condoms or safe sex, rather than just no sex.”

After forming Teens for Reproductive Rights, the four founders agreed that comprehensive sex education should be one of their priorities. Paige said she doesn’t want sex to be taboo. “We want people to be able to speak openly about their sexual lives,” she said. “To live healthy, adolescent lives.”

Because all four of the founders of Teens for Reproductive Rights are 17 years old, they haven’t voted yet. Though they look forward to doing so in the November 2022 midterm elections, they don’t see their age as a reason to be complacent — they see it as a reason to take action. “It’s important for us since we can’t vote yet,” Emma Rose said. “The biggest way we can let our voices be heard is through activism and events and platforms. People are like, your voices can be heard through voting but for teens like us, we can’t vote yet. And my voice still matters.”

But the teenagers are well aware of the limits of their knowledge — as Emma Rose said, “We want to teach our peers but we’re learning alongside them.” With that understanding, they aim to bring resources and reproductive rights organizations to teenagers to further their understanding of sex and their rights. 

“The main focus is getting teens the education resources they need,” Alyson said. “We’re not claiming to be healthcare providers but we can connect teenagers with organizations that [have resources].” 

At the Rock for Reproductive Rights benefit concert the group held, five musicians played while organizations like Abortion Care Tennessee and Planned Parenthood handed out resources. There were snow cones and pizza and even a vintage shop stand. Alyson remembered the dread leading up to the benefit concert, when the girls worried no one would show up. But they needn’t have worried: Alyson guessed that about 300 people showed up and many asked how they could help the organization in the future.

Their goal is at once simple and complex: to hold a microphone to the voices of teenagers in Tennessee, a state where abortion is essentially outlawed and sex education comes in the form of an abstinence-only curriculum, and to bridge the gap between reproductive health care organizations and the teenagers who need their resources. To that end, the girls are planning for future events, though they also use their group chat for jokes and check-ins and musings about their days, like any teenagers. They said their actions wouldn’t be as effective without the foundation of friendship they’ve built to hold them steady. 

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