Birth control access continues to be debated

Individual states continue to battle over birth control. In Illinois, pharmacists can now refuse to dispense birth control at all, while in New York City, schools are providing students access to emergency contraception–at least for now. So a woman’s ability to obtain birth control could very well be determined not by her need, but by where she happens to live.
Last week, an appeals court in Illinois upheld a lower court’s decision that the state cannot force pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception, commonly known as Plan B, if to do so conflicts with their religious beliefs. Anti-abortionists commonly refer to emergency contraception (EC) as abortion pills, a statement that is completely false. Emergency contraception means just what it says–the prevention of pregnancy. EC prevents pregnancy when taken up to five days following sexual intercourse. It does not terminate an existing pregnancy. The pill that terminates an early pregnancy is RU486, which is not included in any state’s current laws. While some in Illinois are declaring this a victory for religious freedom, the ACLU strongly disagrees. According to ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka, “We are dismayed that the court expressly refused to consider the interests of women who are seeking lawful prescription medication and essentially held that the religious practice of individuals trumps women’s health care. We think the court could not be more wrong” (NBC News).
While women in Illinois may have a difficult time accessing emergency contraception at their local pharmacy, students in New York City can actually obtain Plan B at school. A pilot program in place at thirteen city schools is experiencing such success that it could eventually be implemented on a city-wide basis, unless recent publicity leads to a backlash. The program, called Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health, has been in place for over a year, but it has recently come under fire after a story detailing the program ran in the New York Post.
Parents and guardians of students attending the schools offering the pilot program receive a letter at the beginning of the school year notifying them that the program is in place. They are informed that students age fourteen and older can request emergency contraception if needed unless the family opts out. Thus far, less than 2% of families have opted out of the program, possibly because over 7,000 girls under the age of seventeen attending city schools get pregnant each year. It is estimated that half of those pregnancies are terminated (Yahoo News). It is obvious that the sex education curriculum currently in place is not preventing high school students from having sex. So the question becomes, do you take steps to help students prevent pregnancy, or do you wait until a pregnancy occurs to address the issue?
Schools have dispensed other types of birth control for years, including condoms and in some cases birth control pills. Adding emergency contraception, especially if it will help prevent numerous unwanted pregnancies and parents do not object, seems like a logical next step. Yet now that the program has made headlines, you can bet that those who have no stake in it at all–people who are not parents or students–will protest loud and long in an attempt to shut this program down. So I have to ask, will these same people offer financial and emotional support to the teens who will get pregnant if this program is not available? Sadly, I already know the answer to that is a resounding no.

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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