Contraception in Public Schools: The Debate Continues, Where Do You Stand on the Issue?

Different kinds of birth control pills.

Different kinds of birth control pills. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The debate surrounding dispensing birth control in New York City public schools has been getting a lot of attention this fall. Thirteen schools are spearheading the CATCH (Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health) pilot program that will make contraception (oral contraceptive, injected contraceptive, and the morning after pill) available to high school girls through an opt out system. The New York Post says that “during an unpublicized pilot program in five city schools last year [2011], 567 students received Plan B tablets [the morning after pill] and 580 students received Reclipsen birth-control pills.” The opt out approach means that parents and guardians would need to sign a waiver saying that their child would not be allowed access to birth control through the public school system. This means that girls as young as 14 years old will have access to free birth control without having to notify a parent or guardian.

I remember in the early 1990s the same heated debate surrounded the dispensing of condoms in public schools. Now that we are in the 21st century, the idea of having access to condoms in school is nowhere near as intolerable as it was 20 or so years ago. In yesteryear, sexually transmitted diseases, particularly AIDS and HIV, were hot topics; safe sex and avoiding teenage pregnancy were the goal of the condom initiatives. But even then, parents were concerned that having access to condoms would only promote promiscuity and undermine messages of abstinence. People thought that providing condoms to high schoolers would only make them feel as though they had permission to have sex or even feel as though they could handle having sex earlier rather than later. The fear that promiscuity would be fast on the rise gripped many opposers of the condom program, and the fear that STDs and AIDS would be even faster on the rise took hold of supporters. Ultimately, condoms became available in most public school systems (since 1991 in New York City) and the programs are given very little thought or attention nowadays. Condoms are so last century, and birth control—well that’s the debate of the early 21st century.

Birth Control Info for Teens

Birth Control Info for Teens (Photo credit: jen-the-librarian)

Opting Out

One flaw with CATCHs opt out program being cited by parents and guardians is that students who want to take advantage of the free birth control through the schools would only need to keep the opt out waiver from their parents or guardians, as an unsigned waiver means access to free birth control. In fact, there are parents who say they failed to receive the opt out letter; this is not to say that oversights could not have been made causing some parents not to receive the form through no fault of the student. Another problem cited with the opt out program is that should a child not tell her parent or guardian about receiving birth control, the potential for unpleasant medicinal interactions or reactions to the contraceptive may occur. Should this happen parents or guardians’ ability to make a possible connection between the birth control and the new symptom may be decreased. Perhaps the largest outcry from parents is about their rights to parent as they see fit and be an integral part of their children’s lives. There are parents who welcome an open dialogue with their children; and however uncomfortable the child or parent may be with the subject matter, both parent and child are active participants in the parent-child relationship. Some of these parents also argue that the government is trying to take over their role, undermining the value system they are trying to instill in their children.

Those parents who are supporters of the CATCH program include parents and guardians who have a regular open dialogue with their teens, parents and guardians who already have their teen on birth control for whatever reason, as well as those who are uninsured or just cannot cover the cost of birth control for their teen. These parents and guardians feel more comfort in knowing that their teens most likely won’t be bringing home any unwanted/unplanned teenage pregnancies (let’s remember birth control doesn’t always do its job). As a parent, I feel most parents would prefer their teens not engage in sexual activity at such a young age because we’ve been that age. We remember the commotion of feelings and thoughts (rational and irrational) and the lack of maturity versus the perceived maturity. Sex changes things, it’s true, but knowing that one of those changes is not likely to be a baby is somewhat soothing to some parents. With the media storm surrounding this controversy, many parents, New York City residents or not, are aware of the situation and may be emboldened in looking into the CATCH program and making sure to have the opportunity to opt out if desired (particularly those who say they never received the opt out form or are unsure of whether their child’s school is one of CATCHs participants).

Morning After Pill

The major point of contention that I am noticing in all of the articles and discussions are covering this controversy is the morning after pill (queue the dramatic music); there doesn’t seem to be as strong an opposition to the birth control pills or injections. Why all of this negative emphasis on the morning after pill and not the older and more traditional methods? The abortion controversy is the answer. Many opposers of the morning after pill view it as a less invasive method of abortion, but abortion nonetheless. The morning after pill is termed abortifacient in the medical community. According to Rich Lowry’s article on Newsmax.com, the CATCH program is “another step down the slippery slope toward the provision of abortion in the schools.” Some might even say it won’t be long before the government is sponsoring abortions. But Erika Christakis disagrees, saying, “in 2006, only 5% of high schools made condoms available, while all 50 states allow minors to consent to treatment services for sexually transmitted infections. If we don’t require consent for treatment, why do we balk at consent for prevention?” Could it be because we feel as though they’ve already gotten themselves into some mess and that it feels better to clean up than to “Scotchguard?”  Would we rather believe that our kids aren’t engaging in sexual activity until it is absolutely apparent and undeniable that they are, either due to an STD or pregnancy? What’s clear is that this is no black and white matter, and that each parent and guardian needs to treat this situation as they see fit.

Supporters of the CATCH program view it more as preventative care, a method of keeping the numbers of those moving through the social services system down. The logic here is that it’s cheaper to try to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs than to pay for cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, and other welfare services. By providing the morning after pill, many young women’s lives can be drastically changed, college/university, sports, social life, etc., the course of their future may be optimized. Supporters of the morning after pill have taken into account safe sex that may have gone amiss for reasons such as date rape and rape, irresponsibility, sexual abuse, etc., while its opposers assume that those who have need for the morning after pill were simply reckless and irresponsible only.

Conclusion

The Washington Times says that “… New York is [now] one of 26 states that allow “all minors (12 and older) to consent to contraceptive services,” according to the Guttmacher Institute.” If 25 other states are already offering contraceptive services to minors and haven’t made national news, what is so different about New York City?

It’s been noted that more of an open dialogue between schools and parents is one way of bridging the gap. Perhaps a discussion or a series of town hall meetings should have been conducted first to inform parents and guardians of the CATCH program, its purpose, and its goals. Maybe these types of meetings wouldn’t have parents feeling blindsided or ambushed by the school system. “They” say that time heals all wounds, and if  “they” are right, just like with condom distribution, the idea of birth control in public schools just needs some getting used to.

CATCH program supporters recognize that there are a large number of students who feel they can’t turn to their parents with such a topic, for whatever reason (strict rules, religious views, inactive parenting, fear, etc.). Supporters also understand that there is a significant portion of students who receive no reliable information about sex, sexual health, contraception, pregnancy, or reproductive health. Should one of these students be worried about becoming pregnant, the CATCH program hopes to be of assistance. Of the 7,000 New York City teens that became pregnant in 2011, 64% of the pregnancies were aborted and about 70% of the teens who did not abort dropped out of school according to the New York Post. This leads me to believe that one of the program’s goals is to prevent dropouts due to pregnancy, which may open up a potentially brighter future.

Regardless of your position, I encourage you to make this a dinnertime or family discussion. Beginning a respectful dialogue within your family is the first step to making sure that this issue doesn’t cause irreparable damage to your family. You just may be surprised at how your family members view this controversy.

Sources

  • http://ideas.time.com/2012/09/26/the-argument-you-dont-hear-about-birth-control-in-schools/#ixzz2A9eJIeXO Erika Christakis in Time.com. “The Argument You Don’t Hear About Birth Control in Schools.”
  • NYC schools give out morning-after pills to students — without telling parents Susan Edelman and Cynthia R. Fagen in NYPost.com. “NYC Schools Give Out Morning After Pills to Students—Without Telling Parents.”
  • NYC Schools’ Birth Control Obsession Rich Lowry in Newsmax.com. “NYC Schools’ Birth Control Obsession.”
  • http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/sep/24/girls-age-14-can-get-birth-control-at-new-york-cit/#ixzz2A9lnlmNB Cheryl Wetzstein in WashigntonTimes.com. “Girls Age 14 Can Get Birth Control at New York City Schools.”

Reader Response: Do you think schools should have this much involvement in whether or not teens have access to contraception?

Guest Post: Miriam Hoover is a poet, fiction writer, mother of one, and “Better Grow Girl” blogger. She is currently a freelance writer, working towards a master’s degree in professional writing at Towson University. She has studied under writers such as Michael Downs, Merrill Feitell, Valerie Jean, and Geoffrey Becker.

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