New York Post to NYC Teens: Give Birth!
Last week, New York City’s Department of Health released numbers showing that teen pregnancy rates in the city have fallen considerably in the last decade. So for some reason, the New York Post, the city’s conservative home town paper decided it needed to stir up a fake controversy by suggesting that the Bloomberg administration is trying to keep the data on how much birth control schools have really distributed under wraps.
Health Commissioner Tom Farley certainly didn’t seem to have anything to hide when he hailed the city’s 27 percent decline in teen pregnancy. Farley suggested that the drop comes because fewer teens are having sex and more teens using birth control.
Farley said “It shows that when you make condoms and contraception available to teens, they don’t increase their likelihood of being sexually active. But they get the message that sex is risky.”
The commissioner is referring, in part, to the school district’s CATCH Program, Connecting Adolescents To Comprehensive Health, which uses Health Department doctors and school nurses to prescribe and distribute birth control to students. The program also provides pregnancy tests; education on contraceptive methods, including condoms; STI prevention education; education on pregnancy options and referrals to primary care; STI testing and treatment; and mental health counseling. The program started in 2011 with five schools and expanded to 13 schools by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
The CATCH program made headlines at the start of the school year when a New York Post article said it was giving out Emergency Contraception to students has young as 14 without their parents’ knowledge. This was not accurate. The Health Department says that parents were made aware of the program and told them that they had the right to “opt-out” if they did not want their child to be allowed to receive contraception at school. Only one to two percent of parents at these schools chose to “opt-out.”
Despite this, the Post insisted the program was controversial and parental authority was being usurped.
Supporting Mothers at Any Age: How Media and Society Need to Change
One thing is clear about our media conversations regarding parenting: you are never the right age to be a mother. Whether it’s alarmism about the high rates of teen pregnancy or the more recent alarmism about pregnancies and births to women who are too old, the message is clear.
The conversation on both ends frustrates me. Both rely on generalizations and assumptions about how age correlates to parenting ability and health of the pregnancy. Both conversations are tinged with a tone of judgment toward mothers regarding the decisions they make as parents. Both ignore the actual challenges that can result from pregnancy and parenting at a certain age, despite the fact that many of those challenges are ones we can actually address. Getting women to change when they decide to parent? Not likely. A more likely result is making everyone feel bad about when they choose to parent — something that does zero to improve children’s lives.
I’ve written before about what can be done to improve outcomes for teen parents — provide them the resources they need to succeed as parents, rather than putting all the resources into discouraging other teens from parenting. While there isn’t currently a government-funded campaign to discourage pregnancy and parenting over a certain age — say, 35 — it’s not out of the realm of possibility, particularly when you look at the kind of dialogue included in the recent conversations about older parents. From The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz’s piece, “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society,” you get a clear picture of the sort of dystopian future she believes we may be entering thanks to the aging of parents and the supposed rise in developmental disorders among their children.
From STD Prevention to Sexual Health, and Back
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series developed by the American Social Health Association (ASHA) in celebration of Sexual Health Month 2012 during September.RHRC will be publishing articles by ASHA all month, see all the articles here and visit ASHA online throughout September for updates.
Cross-posted with permission from the American Social Health Association (ASHA).
One evening, during the week of the 2001 International Society for STD Research meeting in Berlin, I met with a couple of colleagues for beers after the day’s proceedings. We lamented the the narrow focus of many conferences was on disease and the lack of a broader sexuality framework. “It is time to put sex into STD prevention,” one of my colleagues said. The comment was a bit wistful at the time and I don’t think any of us could have foreseen that a decade later our field would be expressing so much more interest in sexuality and sexual health.
This has been accentuated by the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent efforts in developing a sexual health framework signalling an overall shift from disease prevention to health promotion. Credit goes to Dr. John Douglas, the Chief Medical Officer in the National Center for HIV, Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, who spearheaded this effort in the past three years and has created a broad coalition of stakeholders across the political and cultural spectrum to endorse a national strategy for sexual health.
Of course, the CDC’s efforts did not arise in a vacuum and there have been a number of developments in the past decade that have fostered a broad-based discussion of sexual health. For me, one of the heralding events in the sexual health discourse was Dr. Amy Schalet’s presentation on teen sexuality at the Jacksonville STD Prevention Conference in 2006. I have always been taken by Dr. Schalet’s work — perhaps because as a chauvinist Dutchman (born and raised in Amsterdam) I liked her findings that a more liberal attitude towards sexuality among Dutch teens and their parents is associated with much lower rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the Netherlands compared to the U.S. Her book: “Not Under My Roof” was published last year (a podcast interview with Dr. Schalet is available at this link).
However, association does not causation make. There is a lot to like about a more positive approach towards sexuality, but a causal link between better sexual health and lower pregnancy and STI rates ultimately requires scientific evidence that goes beyond intuitive reasoning.