Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Birth Control in Gloucester

The Gloucester School Committee is considering whether to offer contraceptives in the school health clinic. This is in response to the rise in teen pregnancies over the past year.

Medical Director of Massachusetts State Department of Public Health Dr. Lauren Smith was asked by Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk to participate on a so-called Blue Ribbon Panel, which is examining how to respond to the spike in teen pregnancies.

Dr. Smith supports providing confidential access to contraceptives in addition to comprehensive sexuality education.

Members of the community will get the chance to voice their opinions about birth control and sex education at a series of meetings yet to be scheduled. School Committee Chairman Greg Verga is quoted in the Globe article as saying, “I think a lot of people would like to have their say.”

Fine. Hear everyone out. But the city has asked experts such as Dr. Smith to weigh in for a reason.

”We have a lot of options to look at,” Mayor Kirk says in the Globe article. “We have abstinence all the way to contraceptives. That’s a huge spectrum.”
I hope Mayor Kirk will heed the advice of the experts. They will tell her and the members of the School Committee that effective sexuality education doesn’t just teach about abstinence or contraceptives. Comprehensive sexuality education, as supported by Dr. Smith, includes both – messages people about contraception and the benefits of abstaining from sex.

Some will charge it’s a mixed message, that it could confuse young people.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy issued a report, Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. The author of the report is Dr. Douglas Kirby, who is nationally known for his work in the field of adolescent sexuality.

“Studies clearly demonstrate that the same programs can both delay sex and increase use of condoms or other forms of contraception,” Dr. Kirby writes. “In other words, emphasizing abstinence and the use of protection for those who do have sex in the same program is not confusing to young people; rather, it is realistic and effective.”

I’m reminded of what 17-year- old Mariama told me when I interviewed her for our DVD set, Raising Healthy Kids: Families Talk About Sexual Health.

“My parents instilled in me the values that abstinence was the best thing to do,” Mariama said. “And I waited [for sex] and I will continue to wait until I get married.”

“But they also said to me,” Mariama continues, “ ‘We realize that you’re reaching an age where you’re going to make that decision on your own. And if you do make the decision to have sex, we want you to protect yourself. They also said that we love you enough that, whether you agree with us or not, we still want the best for you, in terms of being protected.’ ”

Preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases isn’t a moral issue. It’s a health issue.

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a sex education policy with recommendations that are based on evidence.

Jonathan Klein, M.D., chair of the Committee that wrote the recommendations, said: "Even though there is great enthusiasm in some circles for abstinence-only interventions, the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy."

I urge Gloucester: Listen to the experts.

Resources
Raising Healthy Kids: Families Talk About Sexual Health
Words Can Work: When Talking With Kids About Sexual Health
What Works: Sexuality Education

Related Issues and Answers columns
Parents as educators
Postponing sex
Self-respect
Talking with kids

Related columns for young people

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