By Thamar Jones
Today, in Belize, sexually active teenagers can walk into a clinic or drugstore and get contraceptives to protect themselves against unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases–even if they can’t talk about sex with their parents. But there are many parents who would want to see laws enacted that will make their consent mandatory before their child can access such services.
These proposals would radically alter long-standing public health policy and put teenagers at risk. Studies show that preventing teens from getting contraceptives unless they tell a parent won’t stop teenagers from having sex. It will just drive them away from the services they need to protect themselves, leading to higher rates of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV. For these reasons, the leading medical organizations oppose laws that would require teens to involve their parents before they can get contraception. Such laws would endanger teens’ health and lives and violate their rights.
Preventing Teenagers from Getting Contraception Unless They Tell a Parent Doesn’t Decrease Sexual Activity; It Just Makes It More Dangerous.
Some people say that allowing teenagers to get contraceptives without first telling a parent encourages them to become sexually active and that, conversely, requiring teenagers to tell their parents before they get birth control would discourage sexual activity. But research about how teenagers behave flatly contradicts this theory. Teenagers don’t become sexually active because they can go to a family planning provider and get contraceptives confidentially. In fact, on average, young women are sexually active for 22 months before getting on a plan. Studies show that making contraceptives available to teenagers does not increase sexual activity. Students in schools that make condoms available without requiring parental notification are less likely to have ever had sexual intercourse than students at schools that don’t provide condoms confidentially. Moreover, in schools where condoms are readily available, those teens who do have sex are twice as likely as other students to have used a condom during their last sexual encounter.
The research thus shows that requiring teens to tell a parent before they can access contraceptive services doesn’t reduce their sexual activity – it will just put their health and lives at risk. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at what sexually active teenage girls would do if they could not get prescription contraceptives unless the clinic notified their parents.3 The results are important for anyone who cares about teenagers’ well-being:
47 percent of sexually active teenage girls said that they would stop accessing all reproductive health care services from the clinic if they couldn’t get contraceptives without first telling their parents. Not only would these teenagers stop getting contraceptive services, they would also stop getting testing and treatment for STDs, including HIV; yet 99 percent of these teens said they would continue having sex. As this research shows, guarantees of confidentiality are one of the prime factors influencing whether a teenager will seek vital health services.
A sexually active teen who does not use contraception has a 90 percent chance of getting pregnant within one year. In a single act of unprotected sex with an infected partner, a teenage girl has a one-percent risk of acquiring HIV, a 30 percent risk of getting genital herpes, and a 50 percent chance of contracting gonorrhea.
Medical experts caution that when teenagers cannot obtain contraceptives without involving a parent, they are less likely to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and STDs. For this reason, leading medical organizations, oppose laws that would require teens to involve a parent.
Most teens seeking services are already sexually active. Mandating parental involvement is likely to discourage many teens from seeking family planning services, placing them at an increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. Studies indicate that one of the major causes of delay by adolescents in seeking contraception is fear of parental discovery and that many would avoid seeking services altogether if parental involvement were required.
Preventing Teenagers From Getting Contraception Unless They Involve a Parent Will Not Improve Family Communication.
The government cannot mandate healthy family communication. However, sexual and reproductive healthcare providers encourage teenagers to talk to their parents about their health care decisions. Many teens, however, simply will not seek contraception if they cannot obtain it confidentially. Some justifiably fear that disclosure to their parents will lead to abandonment or abuse. Some simply have no caring and responsible parent to whom they can turn. Others live in families where sexuality is never openly discussed. Laws mandating parental involvement in teenagers’ reproductive health care decisions cannot transform a household with poor lines of communication into a paradigm of the perfect family. Preventing teenagers from getting contraception unless they talk to a parent won’t magically change these families; it will just result in teens having unprotected and unsafe sex.
By Thamar Jones