On July 13, I had the privilege of speaking at Arkansas Governor’s School (AGS), a six-week residential enrichment program for rising Arkansas high school seniors. As an alumnus of AGS, I was excited to return and facilitate a discussion about maternal health disparities with a group of dynamic, engaged students.
To introduce the subject, I screened the Fusion documentary The Naked Truth: Death by Delivery.
Occasionally, I turned around and looked at the crowd of attendees. They were all laser-focused and reacted visibly to the statement that Black women are up to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. Being in the room I once sat in almost a decade ago made me reflect on my own journey developing a passion for reproductive rights (and later, reproductive justice) beginning at around the same age they are now.
After the film, I facilitated a discussion about the student’s reaction to the film, the epidemic of maternal mortality for Black women in the United States, and reproductive justice. Their responses were strong and vocal. The overwhelming consensus was that this was an issue not being paid the necessary amount of attention to address, which they found unjust. One student whose adoptive parents are both doctors wondered if her parents were aware of racism in health care. Others were upset that they aren’t taught about reproductive health and race in school. At that point, the conversation shifted more broadly to a Q&A on reproductive justice in Arkansas. It was clear that these students were bursting with questions — about sex education, abortion access, teen pregnancy, and sexual assault.
Arkansas has no mandated sex education, the highest teen birth rate in the nation, and the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS) survey shows that Arkansas ranks top in the nation for adolescent sexual assault. The students seized upon that fact and immediately connected the dots to maternal health. “Wouldn’t it lower deaths if there were fewer unplanned pregnancies?” asked a student. Another responded, “but if they don’t teach us how to be safe, what are we supposed to do?”
It was a very good question. In a state where prenatal care access is limited, contraception and abortion access is under attack, racism persists in medical care, and there is no sex education, what are we supposed to do?
At the conclusion of the discussion, I gave them my contact information and urged them to keep asking tough questions. It was a privilege to spend the evening with some of Arkansas’ next generation of world-changers.