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news release

Rebecca Wind

For Immediate Release: January 18, 2005 at 4:00 p.m. EST


Roughly one in five teenagers would have unsafe sex if their parents had to be notified before they could receive prescription birth control at a family planning clinic, according to new data being published in the January 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. In the nationwide study of adolescents attending family planning clinics, three in five (60%) young women younger than 18 said their parents knew they used a clinic for sexual health services-typically because they had told parents themselves or their parents had suggested it. But a law requiring that their parents be notified would lead a significant proportion (18%) to have sex using no contraceptive method or to rely on rhythm or withdrawal, thus increasing their risk for unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Only 1% indicated that their only reaction would be to stop having sex.

"Parents and policymakers will be glad to know that teens are talking with their parents about sex and birth control. At the same time, these findings are a warning that forcing parental involvement in these issues could backfire, driving young people to have unprotected sex and putting their health and lives at risk," says Rachel Jones, PhD, senior research associate at The Alan Guttmacher Institute and lead author of the study.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,500 young women younger than 18 who were seeking sexual health services, including contraceptives, at family planning clinics in 33 states. A majority-primarily those whose parents already knew they were at the clinic-said they would continue to seek contraceptive services if parental notification were required. However, among teens who had not already discussed their visit with parents, 70% said that they would stop coming to the clinic, and a quarter said they would have unsafe sex.

Today, Texas, Utah and one county in Illinois require parental consent for at least some family planning services paid for with state funds, while several other states-including Kentucky, Minnesota and Virginia-have considered more wide-reaching proposals to mandate parental consent for contraceptives in their most recent legislative sessions. Legislation introduced in Congress in each of the last few years would require parental involvement across the country for adolescents to obtain contraceptives, and would thus overturn the guarantee of confidentiality for those seeking care at facilities funded through Title X, the federal family planning program.

The question of how teenagers would respond to such requirements is of particular interest to public health researchers, given the high numbers of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections in the United States. Although the rate of teen pregnancy has dropped over the last decade, The Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates that nearly 850,000 teenagers still get pregnant each year-and the vast majority of these pregnancies are unintended. Nationwide, roughly half of all unintended pregnancies occur among the small proportion of women who are not using any form of birth control. Teenagers also remain at relatively high risk for sexually transmitted infections, accounting for approximately four million new cases each year, despite recent trends showing declines in teen sexual activity and increases in the use of condoms and other contraceptives among those who are sexually active. These new findings suggest that laws mandating parental involvement in contraceptive use would only exacerbate these problems.

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"Adolescents' Reports of Parental Knowledge of Adolescents' Use of Sexual Health Services and Their Reactions to Mandated Parental Notification for Contraception" is authored by Rachel K. Jones, Alison Purcell, Susheela Singh and Lawrence B. Finer, all of The Alan Guttmacher Institute. The article is based on research funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, but all findings and conclusions are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the foundation. Click here for a link to the article abstract.