Not My Kid

What parents believe about the sex lives of their teenagers

The Morning-After-Pill, Teenagers, and Parents

Should doctors prescribe the morning-after-pill to teenage girls just in case?

Should doctors prescribe the morning-after-pill to teenage girls—even those who don’t request it and don’t currently need it—unbeknownst to their parents? That’s the recommendation the American Academy of Pediatrics made last week when it announced that pediatricians should not only inform their teenage patients about emergency contraception, but should write them a prescription just in case.

Currently emergency contraceptive—sold as Plan B One Step and Next Choice—is available over-the-counter for those 17 and older. Anyone under the age of 17 must have a prescription. As the name implies, the morning-after-pill needs to be taken in a timely manner—within five days of unprotected sex—to be effective. Young women without an advance prescription are less likely to use the drug after unprotected sex than those with a prescription in hand, studies show, prompting the academy’s recommendation.

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But what about parents, you might ask. Doesn’t this recommendation bypass parental rights?

The parents I interviewed for my book don’t want their teen children to have sex largely because they see a host of dangers associated with sexual activity. One mother tells her three children, “When you have sex, there’s only the potential for a baby to pop up no matter what precautions you take.” Another commented, “It used to be that getting pregnant was the scary thing of having sex before marriage. That’s one of the nice things that can happen nowadays. There’s some pretty snag nasty diseases running out there.”

In my book, I call this the “danger discourse” of teen sexuality—the notion that teen sexual activity is inevitably and irrevocably dangerous. Abstinence-only sex education has encouraged this way of thinking, along with our increasingly risk-averse culture (especially when it comes to children). Although the risks parents envision around teen sexual activity are exaggerated, their fears are very real.

Yet despite these fears and despite hoping that their children delay sex until marriage or adulthood, parents aren’t fully convinced that teen sexual abstinence is realistic. Parents are grateful to schools, physicians, and other professionals for helping them navigate sexuality with their teen children. Even the most conservative father I spoke with—who emphasized throughout our conversation that he expects his teen son to abstain from sex until marriage—confessed he’s not entirely sure his son will in fact remain abstinent and begrudgingly admitted some relief that his son has learned about contraception in school.

So while a small but vocal contingent of parents will likely oppose the Academy of Pediatrics new recommendation, my bet is that many parents will, however conflicted they may feel, quietly breathe a sigh of relief that they are gaining another anchor of support in their effort to guide their teen children safely through the hazards of sex.

 

Sinikka Elliott, Ph.D, author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers, is a sociologist at North Carolina State University.

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