Will Offering the Morning-After Pill to Students Encourage Unprotected Sex?
New pregnancy-prevention program doesn't require parental consent
New York City public high schools have begun dispensing the 'morning-after' pill to female students, some as young as 14 years old, without their parent's consent.
Under the city's new pregnancy-prevention program, CATCH (Connecting Adolescents To Comprehensive Healthcare), girls can see a nurse to also receive condoms, pregnancy testing, traditional birth control pills, and the injectable drug Depo-Provera, without telling their parents—unless mom and dad have opted out of having their child be eligible for the program altogether via a signed and returned statement to the school.
Though for the last four years oral contraceptives have been available to students at the majority of the 40 schools with health centers, CATCH—for the first time—allows the city's Health Department to make them available in institutions that lack the private health centers. CATCH was launched quietly in January 2011, but the pilot program went unpublicized—until now.
With 13 schools now implementing the new agenda, parents, doctors, and students are speaking up. Some fear that offering the emergency contraceptive Plan B—which is nearly 90 percent effective if taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex—will only rally for more risky behavior. Others believe it to be a necessary measure, taken to address a crisis.
According to Deborah Kaplan, assistant commissioner at the city's Health Department, nearly 7,000 girls in New York City, aged 15 to 17, get pregnant every year. At 90 percent, almost all of them are unplanned. Of those pregnancies, 64 percent end in abortion. Additionally, 70 percent of girls who become moms by the age of 17 drop out of school.
"We wanted to make sure young people who are sexually active have easy access to contraceptive services and general reproductive health services," Kaplan told NBC. "We’ve had no negative reaction to the CATCH program. We haven’t had one objection. We’ve just had the opt-outs. We’re proud to play that role in promoting and protecting the health of our young people."
But California-based psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman is concerned that by disallowing mom and dad's direct involvement in the distribution of the contraceptives, it will weaken their parent-child connection, and do more harm than good to the teen's psyche.
"Providing these pills means that the schools are enabling, if not encouraging, students to have unprotected sex," Lieberman said. "And it is exactly those students who don't have a good enough relationship with their parents who have unprotected sex. By allowing them to get the pill without communicating with their parents, it increases their estrangement. Teens are not emotionally prepared for intercourse, or the disappointment and rejection that inevitably occurs. Typically, girls have sex in order to try to keep their boyfriends; guys are just looking for notches on their bedpost."
Yerenia Aybar, a ninth-grader at New York's Fashion Industries High School, agrees that girls her age shouldn't get the pill. "It might make students think it's OK to have sex," she told CBS.
Still, Plan B is currently available to teens over-the-counter. Those under the age of 17 require a prescription, but older women can simply show pharmacists proof of age. Last year, however, the Obama administration vetoed the FDA's decision to stock the contraceptive on drugstore and supermarket shelves.
Though Plan B's website explains that the pill is intended to prevent pregnancy, not terminate an existing one, Dr. Yael Varnado, founder of non-profit health organization Get Checked 4 Life, says it is that exact distinction that its adversaries fail to recognize.
"A lot of dissatisfaction regarding the morning-after pill is people's misunderstanding of the drug," she said. "Many still think it is an 'abortion pill,' like RU-486, which it absolutely is not. It's simply a combination of of estrogen and progesterone. Educating teens about sex does not promote having it. It gives them the correct information because often their friends and Internet are not the correct resources with the correct facts."
Despite high schools nationwide offering condoms to students for years—some notably on prom night—the staggering teen pregnancy statistics prove it not to be the most effective method, so Texas-based OB/Gyn Tracey Banks, host of web series Bankable Health Tips, supports CATCH's initial intentions, but hopes the program takes the proper steps in ensuring girls don't overuse what's being offered them.
"Seven-thousand teen pregnancies a year is an epidemic," Banks said. "If they try teaching abstinence, and then prevention, and all methods have failed, you have to look at other means. This beats getting an abortion or having an unwanted pregnancy. But there needs to be a checks-and-balance system: 'Susie Q, this is your third time here, we really need to talk to you about a birth control, because this isn't it.' There needs to be a limit, because the potential for abuse will definitely be there if not."