NC should be doing more, not less to reduce teen pregnancies

A bill awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature could be detrimental to the health and well-being of young North Carolinians by opening the door for school districts to use inaccurate and biased sex educational materials.

Senate Bill 279 would amend the 2009 Healthy Youth Act, which provided greater access to effective sexual health education for the state’s adolescents. Since 2009, teen pregnancies in North Carolina have been steadily declining, but SB 279 jeopardizes that progress by removing a central requirement that all information be taught by approved sexual health experts.

North Carolina should be doing more, not less, to promote adolescent health and reduce teen pregnancies. While teen pregnancy rates have declined over the past decade, tens of thousands of teens still become pregnant in North Carolina each year. The U.S. has one of the highest teen birth rates in the industrialized world, due in large part to a lack of access to contraceptives.

Teen pregnancy has a high cost for young mothers and society as a whole. Only half of young women who have children before age 18 graduate from high school, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Furthermore, teen childbearing cost North Carolina taxpayers at least $325 million in 2010 – the government clearly has a strong incentive to support prevention.

Under the existing Healthy Youth Act, North Carolina schools are required to provide “Reproductive Health and Safety Education” in grades seven through nine, covering both abstinence and FDA-approved contraceptive methods. While educators are allowed to explain the effectiveness of birth control options, the law does not allow contraceptives to be distributed on school property. However, the state’s Minors’ Right to Consent law provides minors with the right to obtain certain medical services, including contraception, without the consent of a parent or guardian.

Given that young people are legally required to learn about contraceptive options in school and can obtain birth control confidentially through a medical provider, why prohibit contraceptive access on school property? Allowing school-based health centers to provide contraceptives could be a powerful tool for preventing unplanned pregnancies and reaching the most vulnerable students.

Evidence from other states and programs has shown that increasing access to contraceptives for young people can prevent teen pregnancies, reduce abortions and lead to huge cost savings. In Colorado, a health initiative provided long-acting reversible contraceptives to young women and low-income women at clinics across the state, including some at or near public high schools. From 2009 to 2013, Colorado’s teen birthrate declined by 40 percent, and the teen abortion rate dropped by 35 percent. While the program was backed by a $23.5 million investment, state savings amounted to $42.5 million in 2010 alone. For every $1 spent on access to contraceptives, there was an average of $5.85 in savings from Medicaid costs for prenatal care, delivery and first-year infant care.

While many argue that giving teens access to birth control causes teens to have more sex, this is a baseless claim. The American South has the highest percentage of schools in the country (55 percent) teaching abstinence as the only method of pregnancy prevention but is home to the highest teen birth rates. Having accurate information regarding contraception and having access to health care have been identified as the two key factors for preventing teen pregnancy.

Considering that North Carolina chose not to expand Medicaid, many families and young people have been left uninsured because they do not qualify for Medicaid but do not have a high enough income to qualify for a subsidy in the health insurance marketplace. Providing contraceptives in public high schools could help the most vulnerable teens, who might not have access to health care anywhere else.

McCrory should reject Senate Bill 279, and lawmakers should adopt provisions to allow contraceptive access in high schools to decrease teen pregnancies, save taxpayer dollars and prevent the cycle of poverty. Improving sexual health education and birth control access is a perfect example of how North Carolina can give young people the resources they need to achieve educational, professional and personal goals.