For a year now, 13 New York City public schools have been offering "Plan B" morning-after pills and other hormonal contraceptives to their students. The NYC health department initiative expands on a similar program run by private school-based health centers, which has made contraception accessible to 25% of high school students.
A recent study, meanwhile, suggests that 40% of women in the United States do not use contraception largely because of misconceptions about pregnancy risk. While expanding access to birth control is the right move, these coincident headlines remind us that it’s wasteful to offer resources without knowledge of how to properly use them.
Fortunately, NYC has enacted a radically renovated sex education policy – the “universal comprehensive sex education” mandate – which may improve teen use of newly accessible contraceptives. But new information about the American public reflects that most women receive an incomplete sex education that counteracts public health measures to improve women’s reproductive health.
The most controversial part of the NYC program is that teenagers can access birth control without parental consent. Parents, however, have not strongly opposed the plan since its implementation last year, NYC officials said on Sunday. Birth control without parental consent liberates teenagers. The approach gives them control over their reproductive health and allows them to leap over hurdles from parents, who may disapprove of birth control for whatever reason.
Yet the lack of parental consent should not encourage families to stop talking about sexual health. Teens who just feel awkward, but not afraid to talk about sex with their parents, should still be upfront with their parents – and parents open to their children. Whether they want to have sex or not, open discussion in families should not be ignored.
The importance of honest, informed conversation about sex cannot be overstated. New research suggests that two out of five sexually active women do not use birth control at all, largely due to misconceptions about their risk for becoming pregnant and how contraceptives work. 47% of women do not completely know what emergency contraception is, and 66% of women who do not use contraception underestimate their risk of getting pregnant. Misinformation arises from poor sex education within families and in school, and the political noise that surrounds women’s reproductive health in this country.
Fortunately, NYC has attempted to address its problem of spotty sex education by mandating a “universal standard for sex education.” For years, a student’s likelihood of receiving a proper sex education depended on variables out of the student’s control. But last year, the Department of Education implemented a new policy that has ensured that middle schools and high schools teach at least one semester each of sex ed.
What is the purpose of expanding access to birth control, if it’s not accompanied by proper sex education? The NYC program is well-intentioned and paired with a recently reformed sex education policy.
The rest of the country, however, has yet to catch up.