Sarah Stoesz is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services overruled the Food and Drug Administration's recommendation to lift the age restriction on emergency contraception and make it available over the counter to women of all reproductive ages. In doing so, the government missed a huge opportunity to help curtail teen pregnancy and teen abortion rates in this country.
It's an unfortunate situation. The body of reliable research tells us that women of all ages can understand how to safely and properly use emergency contraception — and the sooner a woman can access it, the more likely she'll be able to prevent an unintended pregnancy.
This decision sparked an important conversation about sexual activity among teens and young people's access to contraceptives. There are a range of valid opinions among parents, health care providers, lawmakers and young people themselves on this topic. And certainly all of us want to protect the health, well-being and futures of our young people.
Planned Parenthood, as the largest provider of sexual health education in the United States, understands the complexities that parents and lawmakers face when thinking about policies surrounding these issues. We also know what the research tells us — teens who have access to contraception and condoms are no more likely to engage in intercourse than those who do not have access. Other, more powerful forces are at play in how young people choose to become sexually active. Chief among them is their relationship with their parents. We work with moms and dads every day to help them guide their teens toward a lifetime of health decision-making, including delaying sex, because parents play the single most important role in their children's sex education.
We also provide health care to young people, and that role grants us a unique perspective. We all want every teen to have a trusted adult to rely on when he or she needs help. But at Planned Parenthood we know and care for teens every day who find themselves in a desperate situation with no one to turn to. Whether it is a teen who needs a reliable, long-term contraceptive or emergency contraception, our moral compass tells us that everyone deserves the chance to prevent unintended pregnancy. No matter what her age.
Every day in Minnesota, 19 teens become pregnant and 13 become moms. When a girl enters motherhood before she's ready, there are serious health risks for both mom and baby. Pregnant teens are at higher risk for premature labor, anemia and preeclampsia. And babies of teen mothers stand a higher chance of being born prematurely, posing very serious risks to the child's health and life. Beyond this, becoming a parent as a teen has been closely linked to poverty, putting both the parent and the child at risk for a lifetime of struggle.
Birth control is no stranger to controversy, but we must keep the facts front and center. The decision to maintain the status quo on emergency contraception won't prevent teens from becoming sexually active and it won't help parents keep their kids safe. But it will mean that fewer teens will have access to emergency contraception if and when they need it.
Whatever our individual values and feelings about young people and sex, we should all be able to agree that when a teen is sexually active she should have every opportunity to prevent an unintended pregnancy. Her future depends on it.