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The Failure of Sex Ed Is Killing Our Daughters

A human brain with a banana wearing a condom

Back in May, NPR picked up on the story of one New Jersey nurse, Lauren Bloomstein, who died after giving birth to her child. In a shocking case of medical malpractice, the woman died of preeclampsia. It’s a condition common enough to be used in the scripts of Downton Abbey, yet it remains un-researched in the American medical community. What’s worse, according to a follow-up story at NPR, far too many women are completely unaware of the symptoms of preeclampsia and other medical conditions that can arise during pregnancy and labor. Most of these women have college degrees. One featured in The New York Times is a molecular virologist who only thought to pursue medical attention for her high blood pressure postpartum because she’d read Bloomstein’s story online:

The ER doctor told her that she was feeling normal postpartum symptoms, she said, and wanted to send her home even as her blood pressure hovered at perilous heights. Several hours passed before he consulted with an ob/gyn at another hospital and McCausland's severe preeclampsia was treated with magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures.

Without Bloomstein's story as a warning, McCausland doubts she would have recognized her symptoms or persisted in the face of the ER doctor's dismissive approach.

Upon request, NPR received 3,100 similar “near death” stories from mothers who were misdiagnosed, either before being discharged from the hospital or shortly thereafter. Women who “wished” they would’ve known what a high blood pressure reading looked like, or who had no clue that their placenta should have come out in one piece. What kind of education had these women received regarding pregnancy and birth? And what does that mean for today’s young women who will hopefully become tomorrow’s mothers?

If these women relied on their high school sex education classes they were at a near-total loss when it came to reproductive health. Public school curriculums dead-set on preventing pregnancy focus heavily on sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, and “using protection.” As for pregnancy itself, senior students often get a glimpse of a woman giving birth before they pass out in horror. Young women are never given so much as the opportunity to discuss the dynamics of choosing to have children in today’s world, let alone the biology of reproduction, let alone what should go right and what could go wrong.

Today’s Common Core standards for sex education are even worse. They explicitly state that “pregnancy and reproduction” curricula address "information about how pregnancy happens and decision-making to avoid a pregnancy.” By 12th grade, students are expected to reiterate positive and negative prenatal practices. Labor, delivery, and postpartum care are completely left off the list.

Pregnant women are given loads of information on breastfeeding and probably attend a birthing class or two. They’re often too consumed in the search for daycare to actually focus on what will happen to their bodies postpartum. All they know is they need to get back to work in a minimum of 6 to 12 weeks, with a few weeks tacked on if they have the dreaded C-section. Conditions like preeclampsia or retained placenta rarely surface in discussions with medical professionals unless you’re a high-risk patient.

That is most likely because the discussion regarding complications associated with advanced maternal age is strictly taboo. Both medical professionals and journalists avoid the uncomfortable role advanced maternal age plays in the growing maternal mortality rate (MMR) because geriatric pregnancy has become a cultural expectation. While pushing off motherhood to the age of 35 and beyond may be a social norm, it puts a heavy burden on women’s health. Preeclampsia, the condition that killed Lauren Bloomfield, is on the rise. Researchers attribute the condition in large part to “delaying childbirth” and the multiple births associated with “increased use of assisted reproduction.” In an excellent analysis of the factors associated with the rising maternal mortality rate for Arc Digital, Iron Ladies founder Leslie Loftis comments:

…  If we dismiss the role that maternal age plays in our rising MMR, then we will miss designing the proper responses. We will fail to warn women how to plan or what to look for.

In fact, that is what we do now.

Sex education curricula that does not include serious discussions on risk factors in pregnancy, labor, delivery and postpartum fails our girls. Young women deserve the kind of education that permits them to self-advocate in the delivery room, not just the bedroom. Common Core sex education fails in this regard. As a result today’s educators put the lives of an entire generation of women and their future children at risk.