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ABRAMS: NJ must extend sex education curriculum

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On April 5, two Monmouth County teenagers — 18-year-old Jada M. McClain of Neptune and 19-year-old Quaimere Mohammed of Asbury Park — were arrested in connection with the death of a newborn child on March 29. 

McClain was implicated on a first-degree murder charge, according to an affidavit of probable cause, while Mohammed was charged with second-degree desecration of remains for disposing the child’s body in the dumpster at an Asbury Park apartment complex. 

Prosecutors would eventually learn that McClain had given birth to the infant, a boy, on the morning of March 29 before asphyxiating him. After calling Mohammed, McClain’s partner and the child’s father, the couple drove to Asbury Park before Mohammed disposed of the child’s remains. 

This story appears to be paradigmatic of those in the American anthology of teenage pregnancies. A high school-aged mother — weighed down by her parents’ authority, disquieting perceptions from classmates eager to express judgment and lingering questions of financial stability — is confronted with logistical obstacles much greater than those faced by parents that successfully pursued an intentional pregnancy. 

Despite the amplified challenges teenage mothers face, the New Jersey public school system does not provide the far-reaching sexual education to equip them with the knowledge to meet those challenges. 

When questioned by prosecutors, McClain explained that, upon discovering her pregnancy in July, she vacillated over whether to terminate the pregnancy. Because she and Mohammed were adamant about hiding the pregnancy from their parents, McClain ultimately decided against pursuing an abortion. She believed that she needed parental consent to undergo the process, according to the Asbury Park Press. 

The caveat, of course, is that McClain’s inclinations about the barriers faced by young women contemplating an abortion in New Jersey had led her astray. New Jersey law does not require women undertaking abortion procedures to notify their parents or gain their parents’ consent in order to move forward. 

If McClain had known this granular detail — perhaps as knowledge acquired from sexual education in school — she wouldn’t have acquired murder charges from the loss of a child that was carried to term. 

But regardless of whether one believes in the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, we can all agree there was another crucial facet of knowledge missing from McClain’s toolkit: Safe Haven. 

In August 2000, galvanized by similar laws in Alabama and Texas, legislators in New Jersey passed the Safe Haven Infant Protection Act, which allows anonymous parents or representatives of parents to leave infants less than 30 days old at "Safe Haven" sites throughout the state. 

These sites include any hospital emergency room, police station, firehouse or satellite emergency department that is open 24 hours per day. The infants are then transitioned into the care of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families’ Child Protection and Permanency Office, which oversees the child’s adoption or placement into a foster home.

With more than 60 infants rescued from 2000 to 2014, the law has been effective in preventing tragedies like the one that has enveloped the Neptune community. Had McClain understood this resource — carefully designed to prevent heinous acts that stem from the desperation that accompanies an unplanned pregnancy — her child’s life could have been saved, and she could have retained the dignity she was so desperate to cling to. New Jersey public schools’ sexual education curriculum is a reasonable scapegoat for her gap in knowledge. 

Sexual education in any “course, curriculum or instructional program” is to “stress that abstinence from sexual activity” is the only “completely reliable” means of evading sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies, according to the New Jersey Department of Education Core Curriculum Content Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education. 

This statute implies that the New Jersey Department of Education considers abstinence to be a critical facet of sex education, and that no sex education is complete without it. This focus on abstinence as the centerpiece of sex education could lead educators to sacrifice instruction on other critical topics such as the nuanced resources available to teenage parents. 

Rather than focusing sex education so narrowly on abstinence, New Jersey public schools should expand sex education curriculums to reflect the range of challenges and options available once teenagers find themselves pregnant, which are ostensibly being sacrificed for a focus on abstinence. 

By neglecting instruction on the details of options like safe and legal pregnancy termination, adoption and the Safe Haven Infant Protection Act, New Jersey public schools are laying the foundation for tragedies like those committed by McClain and Mohammed. 

Ashley Abrams is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring  in political science. Her column, "Thank U, Next Opinion,"  runs on alternate Wednesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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