Forcing teens, parents to talk won't help a bit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two studies reported this month that requiring teenagers to get parental permission before seeking contraceptives would not have the intended effect of reducing sexual activity among them.

In fact, requiring parental permission would have the worst possible effect: Teens would not stop having sex. They would just stop using birth control. The result would be more unintended pregnancies and higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

Texas and Utah already have such laws on the books. In those states, teens are required to have parental permission before seeking help or information at a state-funded family planning clinic.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute, which released the studies, predicts that, in the current political climate, legislatures in other states might feel emboldened to pass such laws, as might Congress. Bills requiring parental consent were proposed last year in Kentucky, Minnesota and Virginia and could surface again this legislative season.

According to the research released by the Institute, only one percent of the teens surveyed said they would stop having sex if they had to have their parents' permission to get birth control.

But, dreadfully, 70 percent of the teens whose parents were unaware that they were visiting a clinic said they would just stop using birth control if they had to tell their parents about it.

I hope the lawmakers are listening.

I hope they understand that once children reach the age when you can no longer plant them in their cribs until they settle down, more sophisticated behavior-modification techniques are necessary.

Passing laws requiring teenagers to get their parents' permission before having sex makes about as much sense as passing laws forbidding teens from having sex.

But there was other news in the reports issued by Guttmacher, and some of it was truly heartening.

Three out of five teen-agers interviewed at clinics said that not only did their parents know they were there -- their parents had suggested it.

In other words, the kinds of conversations that some lawmakers might like to legislate into place are already happening.

"It's good news that most teens are talking to their parents about sexual health and birth control, but that doesn't make it good public policy to force them into it," said Rachel Jones, senior research associate for Guttmacher.

"Mandating parental involvement for contraception could backfire, driving young people to have unprotected sex and putting their health and lives at increased risk."

These kinds of conversations between kids and parents on subjects such as alcohol, sex and drugs are not easy, and they are fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding.

One of our fears is that teens will conclude that if they come to us on these explosive topics we will be bound by the rules of civility, and the result will be some kind of unspoken permission to proceed.

And we, so anxious to be included in this decision-making, are just as likely bite our tongues for fear of sending the kids back behind a locked bedroom door. We are so grateful to be allowed to have a say that we don't want to say too much.

And, despite study after study to the contrary, parents still do not believe that their kids are eager to hear from them on these subjects. Not only do they want to hear from us, they are capable of absorbing a pretty sophisticated conversation.

We can say, "I am so grateful that you want to talk to me about this, but you are not going to like what I have to say."

We can say, "My years on this planet tell me that you are too young for sex, that you do not understand either its power or its value and you and the person you love will eventually be hurt by it."

We can say, "Just because you have had sex once does not mean you have to have it again. You can change your mind. You can re-think this. You can decide for yourself whether it makes sense for you to continue."

And we can say, "God bless you for having the good sense to know that if you are going to have sex, you have to be protected against pregnancy and disease. Either of those disasters can derail your young life. But you have to understand that abstinence is the only guarantee that they will not."

Those conversations, and many more like them, are of a kind no one can legislate.

They are born out of love, not the law.

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