NEW YORK – Allison Guarino understands the controversy over new rules allowing 15-year-olds to buy the morning-after pill without a prescription. But as someone who teaches pregnancy prevention to ninth-graders in Boston, she thinks lowering the age will “help the girls who need the help the most.”
“Some girls might not have a good relationship with their parents,” she said, “or they had unprotected sex and they don’t know what to do.”
On the other side of the issue are folks like Brenda Velasco Ross, who says the new rules infringe on her rights as a parent. “It breaks my heart and saddens me and really angers me,” said Ross, stepmom of four, including 12- and 13-year-olds in Fullerton, Calif. “If you have to buy Sudafed, you have to show ID. When I buy spray paint for a project for my daughter, I have to show my ID. It just baffles me that, with this, which has to do with pregnancy and being sexually active, I don’t have to be involved. That to me just violates my rights as a parent to have guidelines and parameters for my children.”
The two opinions reflect some of the issues in the debate over new rules issued last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which lowered the age for buying the drug without a prescription from 17 to 15. In April, a federal judge, Edward Korman, said there should be no age restrictions at all. The Obama administration said it wants to maintain the prescription requirement for those under 15 and will appeal the judge’s ruling.
Guarino, 19, a college freshman majoring in public health and political science at Boston University, said she encounters a lot of ignorance on issues related to sex and pregnancy. “I would encourage any young person to go talk to their parents or a doctor, but that’s not the reality,” she said.
Jennifer Morgan, 18, a native of Somerville, Mass., who attends college in Pennsylvania, said she’s not sure she supports eliminating the age limit entirely, but “I think it’s fine for a 15-year-old. Not every girl has the privilege of being able to go talk to her mother in a crisis like that. Because time is of the essence, and if a girl in that situation and that age doesn’t have any other support, I feel like it’s OK.” Morgan recently completed a stint on a leadership team for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and added that while abstinence is an ideal, “not every teen is going to stay abstinent.”
Samantha Bailey-Loomis, 16, who recently founded a Students For Life chapter at her high school in Branford, Conn., opposes the concept of the morning-after pill in the same way that she opposes abortion. “My mom had me when she was 17,” she said. “If this was available when she was young, I wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t be able to make the difference I am in the community today.” Loomis said girls who are worried they might be pregnant should talk to their parents about it, and if they can’t, should seek help from organizations that can provide the support they need.
Dianne Sikel, who volunteers in a juvenile probation program in Phoenix, said dropping the age limit is “a move in the right direction.” She added that it’s easy to tell kids to use condoms, “but it doesn’t always work out that way.”
“These pills being available to teens are far better of an option than having a young couple being forced to become parents, for a young girl, who made a bad choice one evening, who may be forced to abort, or ultimately having to give up a child for adoption,” said Sikel, a parent of two boys, 13 and 16.
Sophia Martin, who teaches at a high school in Northern California where many students continue their education after being expelled from other schools, said she “can understand how upsetting it is to think your kid might engage in unprotected sex and then get the morning after pill without your knowledge. But to me the core reason to abolish any kind of age limit is that there are young people who are in situations in their families where they can’t turn to their parents.”
Martin said some girls become “pregnant not because they chose to have sex. It’s such a hard situation for them to talk about.”
But Andrew Bay, 19, who’s finishing up his freshman year at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., says he thinks making the morning-after pill so easily available “almost encourages even younger children to have unprotected sex.” If he had to put an age limit on getting the drug without a prescription, “It should probably be 18. At least at 18 you’re considered mature enough to make medical decisions on your own.”
Denny Pattyn, founder of Silver Ring Thing, which promotes chastity until marriage and encourages young people to wear purity rings to symbolize their commitments, said he worries that allowing younger teens to get the morning-after pill without a doctor or parent’s knowledge is going to increase the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. “It’s incredibly irresponsible,” he said. “These kids are getting these diseases and they don’t even know they’re getting them.”
Dr. Cora Breuner of the American Academy of Pediatrics said headlines about the age limit have prompted some families to broach the topic of safe sex. Even if parents don’t bring it up, teens are hearing about it.
“I know this in my own practice, there are a lot more conversations between parents and their children about this decision,” said Breuner, an adolescent health specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “This will prompt a conversation nationally that can help at so many levels.”