It's 2016 and People Are Still Worried About Teens Taking Birth Control

What's so terrifying about birth control, again? Photo of a bronze cast of an IUD (Creative Commons).

“I always wonder why parents oppose easy access to birth control,” says Abi Iliesi, a senior at Century High School in Hillsboro, Oregon. “Would they rather have their child hop on a bus alone and go to a clinic downtown?”

This week, the suburban school district that Iliesi attends shot down a plan that would have allowed campus health centers to prescribe birth control to high schoolers. The vote on the school board split along gender and party lines: the four men on the school board (all Republicans) voted against the plan, while the three women on the board (all Democrats) voted for it. Ah, yes, the age-old tale of men controlling the reproductive rights of young women. But the dust up in this one school district reflects two realities seen across the country during this election year: Even as the Affordable Care Act has made birth control more accessible to millions of Americans, teen birth control use remains a politically charged issue. And as Americans’ eyes are focused on the presidential election, it’s a reminder that the people who sit on humble local seats—running in downticket races that rarely get much attention—shape policy in major ways.

An array of birth control options—some reliable, some not—as photographed by teen-friendly sexual health resource site

“I think people have unfounded fears that if you give kids more birth control, they’re going to have more sex. That’s just not true,” says Lacey Beaty, the manager of the six school-based health centers in the Hillsboro school district that are operated by the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center. The campus clinics are an innovative approach to healthcare: Unlike the traditional nurses’s office—which can hand out Band-aids and call parents—the student health centers do everything a primary care provider would do, including write prescriptions. But when Beaty started her job two years ago, she was surprised to discover that they didn’t prescribe birth control. The staff told her that the school board was against the idea, but some digging revealed that the board had never actually voted on the idea. Instead, there was just a “gentleman’s agreement” that the campus health centers wouldn’t distribute birth control. “I don’t think there should be a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ about women’s health,” says Beaty.

Over the course of this spring, the school board listened to hours of testimony from people for and against the plan to let school-based health centers distribute birth control. A group of parents sent around a petition against the idea, saying prescribing birth control from the campus health center “usurps parents’ rights and will result in the endangerment of the students’ health and safety.”

Chart from the Guttmacher Institute.

The squeamishness over teens using birth control ignores reality: According to the Guttmacher Institute, 3.2 million teens are using contraceptives (and 53 percent of those teeangers are on the pill). Teenagers are the group most at-risk for not using contraception, in a large part because they often lack both access to affordable birth control and to education about how contraception works. Think about how it would change the lives of millions of Americans if all high schools had clinics where students were able to talk about birth control options with a doctor and get a prescription for the Pill, the patch, or an IUD.

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Beaty notes with irony that the campus health center is right next to a daycare center for students who have babies. While health professions can’t give students birth control because of parents’ fears that they’re sexually active, the babies are living, breathing proof that students are having sex anyway. Beaty says she has about six students a week who come in to talk about contraception at the health center of a typical high school campus. 

Ask the teens who are affected by school birth-control rules and it’s clear how improving access to contraception won’t “endanger” students health.  “I think it’s no secret that high school students are having sex, and it’s a huge reality that not all high schoolers have access to contraceptives,” says Natalie Fossoy, a junior at Century High School. “If they’re doing it, you’re not encouraging them by handing out contraceptives, you’re protecting people.”

Senior Abi Iliesi says she took three friends last year to get birth control at the clinic in downtown Hillsboro. “All three lied to their parents about where they were because they were scared of being beaten, shunned, or kicked out for their decision to get the pill. Two of those friends were already sexually active and not on any form of birth control,” says Iliesi. “I understand that parents want to be part of their children’s decisions, especially when it comes to sexual health, but not everyone has parents they can talk to.”

For now, students like Iliesi’s friends are stuck with the status quo. Beaty says it would be pointless to try and get the current school board to vote again on the measure, so advocates of reproductive health will have to wait until at least next May to try again—that’s when the school board members are up for reelection. “I feel like a broken record, but the things that make you the most angry in your life are local politics. It’s so important to have women on that table,” says Beaty. “When I retire, I want to go back and be a school board member.”

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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