Imagine a 16-year-old girl who starts having sex. Now imagine that our 16-year-old - we'll call her Louise - feels she can't talk to her parents about sex or anything related to it. They're too uncomfortable to ask, and she's too embarrassed to tell. Unfortunately, not all that unusual.
Louise and her parents do agree on the basics. They all want her to stay healthy and finish school without becoming a teen parent. How can we help Louise make that happen?
Here's one policy option: Keep Louise ignorant about birth control by making sure her school's sex education program is "abstinence-only." Prevent her from getting confidential care at family-planning clinics by refusing to allow her in without parental permission. This is a great solution if you care more about punishing Louise than helping her avoid sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.
Here's a second policy option: Offer balanced, honest sex education in our schools so that teens who are abstinent and teens like Louise all get the information they need to stay healthy. Also make sure teens have a safe place to go when they need counseling and family planning services. And ensure that teens like Louise, who feel they can't talk to their parents about sex, aren't turned away from the health clinic.
Isn't that the best way to help teens stay healthy?
The leadership in Congress is making ideological choices, not caring, responsible choices. How often do you see headlines about yet another divisive battle over abortion? Isn't it time this Congress worked together to prevent the need for abortion instead?
Some members of Congress, working with groups like Planned Parenthood, are trying to make that happen. While our opponents clamor for more abortion restrictions, we are building a coalition to expand access to birth control - not just for teens like Louise, but for, say, her hypothetical Aunt Ruby, a working woman with two kids. With her husband out of work, Ruby's looking at a choice between this month's pills and this month's bills. Her insurance covers other prescription drugs. Why shouldn't it cover birth control pills?
It should. And Planned Parenthood is trying to build the support in Congress necessary to make sure it does. The Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act (EPICC) would ensure that drug plans stop refusing to cover contraceptive drugs and devices. A controversial idea? Even the insurance industry declined to testify against it at a hearing in July. But stay tuned. Leading anti-abortion members of Congress, led by Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, are battling to stop contraceptive coverage.
No leading anti-abortion group publicly supports contraception. Some antichoice members of Congress do understand that family planning helps prevent the need for abortion. But a surprisingly large number of antichoice members are working to restrict access not just to abortion, but to contraception.
In July, the House Appropriations Committee voted to deny teens who won't confide in a parent confidential family planning services at public health clinics participating in the Title X family planning program. And what if a teen like Louise ends up pregnant and needing an abortion?
Most states have laws barring teens from getting an abortion without parental involvement. Louise won't involve her parents, and now, she may be prevented from turning to her Aunt Ruby for help with travel to another state with different laws. In July, the House voted to make it illegal for any adult, including relatives and ministers, to take a girl like Louise across state lines for an abortion.
Planned Parenthood cares for thousands of teens like Louise every year. Our goal is to help them make responsible choices about their health and their future. The good news is that more and more teens are making responsible choices. Pregnancy, abortion, and birth rates for teens are all dropping. Condom use among young people is rising dramatically, but sexual activity rates are not. Unintended pregnancy among adults is dropping too. The message of "responsible choices" is being heard everywhere - except among a powerful faction in Congress.
We can change that. We urge you to get in touch with your representatives. Tell them it is time for programs that help, not policies that punish.
Supporting family planning makes a lot more sense than ongoing divisive battles to restrict both contraception and abortion. These votes will be close, and your call can make a difference. As we know from our clinical experience, sometimes a little phone counseling can help people make responsible choices.
* Gloria Feldt is president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.