When just saying No is not enough

Last January, I was invited to travel to Lima, Peru with Population Action International and Pathfinder International to observe international family planning and reproductive-health assistance in action.

It was an interesting time because just before we arrived, the Peruvian courts had declared unconstitutional a law that had made sex illegal for anyone under 18. This law meant that it was illegal for teenagers to have sex, and it also restricted their ability to purchase or receive information about condoms or contraceptives.

Peru has extremely high rates of teen pregnancy. The law, along with other restrictive policies, was driven by ideological opponents, in particular the Catholic Church, which is very powerful in Peru.

Unfortunately, the extreme nature of the Peruvian law is becoming more common in the United States. Opposition to contraception and reproductive rights are increasingly on display here at home.

Planned Parenthood has already seen its funding cut in Texas, and nearly 200,000 Texas women have lost or could lose access to family planning. In Ohio, a bill that was, thankfully, defeated proposed fining teachers $5,000 if they distributed contraceptives or taught “any gateway sexual activity or health message.”

In Florida, not only is sex education not required by law, but even if schools choose to provide it, they are forced to put a strong focus on abstinence.

Suddenly, Peru doesn’t seem so far away.

Whether in the United States or around the world, this kind of thinking is harmful.

In the United States , about half of all pregnancies are still unintended. And in developing countries, there are 222 million women who want to prevent pregnancy, but lack modern contraceptives. In 2012, 291,000 women in these countries died from pregnancy-related causes; 104,000 of those pregnancies were unintended.

Access to family planning can help change this. And investments in family planning — whether at home or abroad — just make sense. Women who have access to a full range of effective contraceptive methods and reproductive health services are better able to protect themselves against HIV, more likely to get further education, and better able to earn a good living to support themselves and their families.

In short, promoting women’s rights and empowerment goes a long way toward improving their lives, and contributing toward achieving critical global development goals.

In Peru, Texas, Ohio or Florida, while we might wish young people were not having sex, it makes a lot more sense to give anyone of child-bearing age protection along with knowledge. Telling teenagers not to do it is just not enough.

Katy Sorenson is former member of the Miami-Dade County Commission.

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