Newsweek has an article on its education page about whether or not birth control should be free. (Read the text here: http://education.newsweek.com/2010/12/03/should-birth-control-be-free.html.)
Although the article discusses this issue within the context of college campuses, I want to talk about this in high schools, particularly in poor areas. I saw more pregnant students where I taught than any teacher should ever see; I also taught four pregnant students over the course of my two years.
I remember having a conversation with a small group of female students one afternoon and asking them why, with so many examples of how unprotected sex DOES result in pregnancy, anyone in the school still chooses to have it. This particular group of girls all shook their heads and said “I don’t know.”
I heard a number of unsettling things about teen pregnancy while I was teaching… reports of girls wanting to get pregnant in order to force a continued relationship with their boyfriends, boys wanting to get girls pregnant as a demonstration of their manhood, and of course, ignorance about birth control or sex itself (like, if the girl is on top, she can’t get pregnant). I sometimes thought about having a secret stash of condoms in my classroom to give to students who needed them; I ultimately decided that that was one risk for getting into trouble that I was not willing to take. It seems to me that free birth control pills could do a great deal to decrease the rate of teen pregnancy in the United States, and there are so many reasons why that would make things better.
Newsweek says “opponents say free pills will increase promiscuity and may even contribute to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases. And not everyone likes the idea of burdening taxpayers with the cost.” Number one: promiscuity is already pretty high in schools where birth control would do the most good, and at the end of the day, if it’s not resulting in pregnancy, I’d call that a net social gain. As for a rise in STDs, sure, that sounds possible if not probable – but if you attach a requirement for getting the pills like completing a sex education class, you could probably offset that too.
“Burdening taxpayers with the cost” of providing free birth control pills sounds a lot cheaper than burdening taxpayers with the costs of unplanned pregnancies that further contribute to poverty and everything that comes with it. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner fill an entire chapter with compelling evidence linking the legalization of abortion with a sudden decrease in crime – and I for one am fully ready to accept that as just another reason why free birth control sounds like a great idea.
I was very close to two of my students who were pregnant while I taught them, and fortunately I’ve kept in touch with both since they gave birth and graduated. I know that they love their children and are doing the best they can as moms, but I can’t help but wish they could have experienced that same joy of motherhood at a more advanced age when they were more ready to handle the responsibility and cost. I don’t see teen pregnancy as an immediate dealbreaker for future success in life – both of those girls are smart, capable, and motivated – but it sure does make it harder to achieve the same things they planned on doing before they got pregnant.