Birth Control, not babies

Posted: Aug 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Under the category of "No Big Surprise," a study found that about half of young Wisconsin girls who filled out questionnaires at Planned Parenthood said they'd stop going to Planned Parenthood if there were a law requiring their parents to be notified. The girls also said that none of them would stop having sex -- although 1 percent said they'd switch to oral sex. The authors of the study, which ran in the Aug. 14 Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded, "Parental notification for obtaining prescribed contraceptives would impede adolescent girls' use of contraceptive services and treatment for STDs." The study surfaces as Congress reconsiders a measure to change federal law to require that clinics receiving federal funds notify or ask for parental consent when prescribing birth control for minors. Ed Szymkowiak -- of STOPP International, an anti-abortion group that opposes Planned Parenthood -- supports the House bill. He believes that laws that prohibit parental notification for birth control are an intrusion on his family life. He doesn't think it's right that his daughter can't buy a drink, or a cigarette or get tattooed without his permission because she's 12 -- but she can get on the pill without his knowledge. He's right. The law is inconsistent. Szymkowiak cites a case from Crystal Lake, Ill., where a 38-year-old teacher pleaded guilty to having sexual relations with a 13-year-old student. The girl's parents were horrified to learn that the teacher took their child to a county health clinic for birth control -- without notifying them. After the sordid story came to light, McHenry County, Ill., refused federal funds so clinics could notify parents in 1997. Szymkowiak says the teen-age birthrate dropped with parental notification. I wouldn't call his case conclusive. The county saw 67 teen-age births in 1995, 75 in 1996, 66 in 1997, 60 in 1998, 62 in 1999 and 68 in 2002 -- and those numbers don't say how many teen-agers had abortions. What's more, while federal law prevented parental notification, clinics can and should report child abuse to the authorities -- if they are aware of it. But if there's one thing worse than a 13-year-old girl having sex with her 30-something teacher, it's a 13-year-old girl impregnated by her 30-something teacher. That child then has to decide whether to have an abortion (which she may or may not live to regret); to put up her child for adoption (and spend the rest of her life dealing with that wrenching decision); or to raise the child (even though she's a child herself). I strongly support parental consent laws in every other venue, and I realize it's inconsistent, but I support the exception for birth control. As long as there are kids having sex without parental consent, laws ought not to keep them from healthy practices -- preventing unwanted pregnancies or being tested for STDs. Szymkowiak argued that a parental-consent law would make teen-agers choose not to have sex, so it wouldn't raise the pregnancy rate. (He wouldn't say what he would advocate if proven wrong.) Common sense argues against him. Twenty-nine percent of Wisconsin girls said they'd rely on premature withdrawal under a parental-notification system; 29 percent said they'd have unprotected sex. While Szymkowiak predicted more teen-agers would make rational decisions, Planned Parenthood Golden Gate's Dian Harrison said her clinic has to deal with girls who come to Planned Parenthood so late "that there's no way they can terminate a pregnancy." We're not talking about mature decision-makers here. America has finally turned a corner on teen-age pregnancies. There's been a 22 percent reduction in the teen-age birthrate from 1991 to 2000. That's a huge victory. This is no time to turn back the clock.