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Parents and Teens  Talk About Use of Morning-After Pill

Atlanta — Carla Mannings considers herself to be a pretty open-minded mother.

She and her 16-year-old daughter talk about everything under the sun.

Boys. Friendships.

How a girl’s body changes as she gets older.

But the south Fulton, Ga., mother of two disagrees with a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration plan to make the Plan B One-Step morning-after pill available over the counter to girls as young as 15 with proof of age. The age for the single-dose pill was previously 17.

“They’re still talking about what happens at cheerleading and dance,” she said. “The logic and maturity level is just not there. And if they rely on each other for advice, it’s like the blind leading the blind. To give that responsibility to a minor is inferring that that minor has a maturity level to not only have sexual intercourse but to make decisions about what to do later.”

But Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, an Atlanta-based reproductive justice organization for women of color, sees things differently.

She said she worries about people who may struggle to gain access to health care or who may not have a good relationship with their parents.

“Girls are growing up much faster,” Simpson said. “Girls are having sex at 15. This is an opportunity for women to be able to make decisions to choose a different course in their lives.”

The FDA’s decision has opened wider a Pandora’s box of controversy over the use of emergency contraceptives that perhaps has never really been closed. It’s gained steam in recent years as battles have waged in state legislatures and Washington over abortion and reproductive rights.

In another matter, a federal judge wants to make another morning-after pill, two-dose Plan B, available to all women, regardless of age. The U.S. Justice Department is appealing that ruling.

Suzanne L. Ward, the mother of an adult daughter and director of public relations and education for Georgia Right to Life, said the FDA’s move takes parents out of the loop.

“It floors me that when my daughter was in school, she couldn’t have a cough drop or aspirin without my permission,” said Ward.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that they would take this once-prescription drug and release it to 15-year-old children.”

The Rev. Alveda King is worried about the safety of the morning-after pill.

“Birth control made me sick, and I have friends who took birth control pills and they got sick,” said King, who has been an outspoken critic of abortion.

“Emotionally, it’s not good, and physically it’s not good. It’s a very irresponsible decision to make this available to girls.”

People shouldn’t worry about the pill’s safety, said Dr. Melissa Kottke, medical director of Emory University’s Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health. She said it contains some of the same medicine used in many traditional methods of birth control.

“Many people don’t realize that sperm can live in the female reproductive track an average of three days, but up to six.”

What the pill won’t do, she said, is change a teen’s behavior.

It’s simply one of the tools that can be used to help decrease the teen pregnancy rate “and I think everyone can agree that’s something we all want,” Kottke said.

Although it has declined from previous years, nearly half, or 47 percent, of all high school students reported ever having sexual intercourse in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, the CDC also reports, more than 329,000 babies were born to women ages 15 through 19. This is a record low for U.S. teens in this age group, and a drop of 8 percent from 2010.

“You can’t look at age,” said Simpson of SisterSong. “We see this as a victory, but we don’t see it as a solution. We do need to talk about comprehensive sex education.” Even so, “this sort of gives them the idea that even if I mess up, I can take the morning-after pill,” said Victor Houston, the Conyers, Ga., father of a 17-year-old daughter.

Not only that, he said, “this has nothing to do with preventing STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), but in their minds, this is OK.” At the very least, some say, the debate over emergency contraceptives opens the door for parents to have more talks with their teens about sex.

And that, parents and experts say, may not be such a bad thing.