This school year in New York City, public school nurses will be able to dispense the morning after pill, commonly known as Plan B, to students. The program had a quiet beginning in five high schools in Jan. 2011 before fully launching this fall. Connecting Adolescents To Comprehensive Heath, known as CATCH and overseen by the NYC Health Department, makes the Plan B drug available to students in 13 of New York’s high schools. Students will also be able to receive pregnancy testing, condoms, prescriptions for oral contraceptives and the Depo-Provera shot: a medication that is administered once every three months to prevent pregnancy. This covers almost 5 percent of NYC school children in those schools furthest from health clinics that would otherwise provide these services to young men and women.
This program, however, has one dangerous caveat. In an opt out form that was distributed to families, parents could choose to stop their child from receiving not only the morning after pill, but also birth control, pregnancy testing and even condoms. To be clear, parents will be able to block their children from receiving condoms at school when those same children could legally get an abortion without parental consent (New York requires no parental involvement for children under 18 to receive an abortion). This is obviously absurd.
Although this program is a big step forward for the reproductive rights for young women, I do not think we should ignore the danger this opt out option presents. It creates two major problems. First it defeats the idea of the program: to extend reproductive health care to young women in areas without access to other clinics. Second, it undermines the reproductive rights that New York has extended to young women.
The young women whose parents opt them out of the program will no longer be able to receive the care at school they would have had before the program, namely receiving condoms, and will be forced to travel to clinics that have already been deemed far-off to get other care. It seems to be part of the whole “take away the way to make it safe and people will stop” line of reasoning, which makes absolutely no sense. Can I remind everyone that the state with one of the most aggressive abstinence sex ed programs is also the state with the highest teen pregnancy rates? Mississippi enjoys the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation: 55 births per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19 as of 2010. Taking away fire extinguishers doesn’t stop fires from happening. It just makes fire way more dangerous.
The conflict with reproductive rights is even more troubling. New York, by law, gives women under the age of 18 control over their reproductive choices. From seeking birth control to getting abortions, New York does not require parental consent for reproductive health services. This confers on young women a right to receive these services without informing their parents. I don’t understand why we should limit this right just because the services are being provided through a public school. These young women have a right to make choices about their reproductive health autonomously and we should not cringe away just because they are making these choices at school. Rights of this nature should not be trimmed just because public funding is involved or it makes political sense to hedge. I believe that the opt out form was a political move to prevent the kind of outcry that comes from misunderstanding.
None of these measures are linked to abortion. Plan B does not end pregnancies; it stops them from happening. A parent quoted in The New York Post said “Parents should know if their daughter is pregnant.” Young women getting Plan B or Depo Provera or condoms are not pregnant. They are trying to avoid pregnancy. And if parents want their children to tell them they are sexually active, then attempt to foster that relationship at home instead of trying to limit access to critical health care. We must be consistent in how we imagine the rights of young women and how we extend services to support those rights. Luckily, less than 2 percent of parents have returned opt out forms thus far.
I want to applaud the CATCH program for the progress that it signifies in the extension of access to reproductive healthcare to young women. Despite this, as we look forward into increasing access to reproductive health care to women and girls, we cannot think of better as good enough. We have to recognize the fundamental agency that is tied to reproductive health, an agency that is legally recognized in New York. Young women, whether or not their parents think they should be having sex, have the ability to do so and therefore should have unmitigated access to programs like CATCH without parental involvement. We can’t stop with half measures. Go until the wheels fall off.
Meredith Jewitt is a first-year law student and the former editorial page editor of The Chronicle. You can follow Meredith on Twitter @mljewitt.