In the growing annals of boneheaded decisions that jeopardize the sexual and reproductive health of Texans, it’s time to add a fresh outrage to the pile.
In this newest debacle, a federal judge has made it impossible for Texas teens under 18 to access contraception without a parent’s knowledge and approval.
Your initial reaction may be “good” — parents should be apprised of their adolescent’s decision to become sexually active and acquire birth control. After all, it’s a parent’s job to shepherd their kids as they negotiate the rocky shoals of growing up.
But all the science and medical literature and all the adolescent experts to date speak as one when they say this intuition is wrong, at least on this particular issue, for a host of reasons.
How the newest outrage started: Alexander Deanda, a father of three girls who lives in Amarillo, said he is raising his daughters “in accordance with Christian teaching on matters of sexuality, which requires unmarried children to practice abstinence and refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage,” according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf.
A brief query: Will all those adults who are demanding that their kids remain abstinent until marriage and who they themselves achieved that very goal please raise their hands? Yep, that’s what I thought.
Brief statistical side note: The average age of marriage today in the U.S. is 28 years for females and 30 years for males.
Deanda doesn’t want his daughters to be able to get contraception without his permission, arguing that the confidentiality clause in Title X — a federal program that lets teens get free birth control at certain clinics without approval — subverts his parental authority and the Texas Family Code, which gives parents the “right to consent to … medical and dental care” for their children.
Title X was one of the only ways minors in Texas could access confidential contraception, given the state’s byzantine and draconian laws around birth control and adolescents.
In December, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk agreed with Deanda, ruling that the program violates parents’ rights and state and federal law. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is expected to appeal the ruling, which hasn’t yet gone into effect.
The damage has already been done: Texas’ Title X administrator, Every Body Texas, has asked its 156 clinics to require parental consent for minors “out of an abundance of caution” as it awaits further guidance from the government.
“We hope that as the case proceeds, we are able to revoke this guidance and continue to provide minors in Texas the sexual and reproductive care they need and deserve with or without parental consent,” said Stephanie LeBleu, acting Title X project director at Every Body Texas, in a statement.
In San Antonio, University Health System operates eight Title X clinics, which provide free, confidential contraception and other health care to anyone, regardless of age, income or immigration status. The clinics served 586 clients in fiscal year 2022, most of whom were low-income.
Planned Parenthood South Texas also operates two Title X-funded clinics in San Antonio, an official said.
Apart from Title X, teens in Texas almost always have to get their parents’ permission to get birth control — even those who have already had a baby. Adding insult to injury: Texas is also one of just two states that doesn’t cover contraception at all as part of its state-run Children’s Health Insurance Program.
A few words about the judge and the lawyer involved in the Title X case.
Kacsmaryk, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, is a former religious liberty lawyer who helped litigate cases that sought to overturn protections for contraception for adults. In opposing same-sex marriage, he wrote against such practices as no-fault divorce — there was a time when spouses had to accuse each other of horrible things to legally part — and against removing criminal penalties for “fornication and adultery.”
The lawyer, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former Texas solicitor general who designed the law that banned most abortions in Texas after six weeks of pregnancy. He also brought a lawsuit that sought to block requirements in the Affordable Care Act that required employers to cover HIV prevention medications.
Now, here are the facts: Studies show that preventing female minors from getting contraceptives unless they tell a parent doesn’t stop them from having sex. It just prevents them from seeking the services that will protect them from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases — while they continue to have sex.
Some argue that allowing kids to get contraception sends a message that encourages them to have sex — priming the pump, so to speak. Wrong again. Studies show most teens accessing birth control at Title X clinics are already having sex.
It would be great if all teens had loving, caring parents to whom they could go to with questions about sex and birth control. Many don’t. They may fear abuse or abandonment or at the very least disappointing their parents. Sex may be a taboo topic in their homes.
For these reasons and others, every leading medical organization that specializes in adolescent health opposes any law that would require parental approval for teens’ access to birth control.
In recent decades, teen pregnancy and birth rates have dropped significantly in the nation, including in Texas — a change that experts attribute in large part to adolescents having greater access to birth control, along with information about same.
Studies show that states which mandate comprehensive sex education in schools, which includes instruction about birth control — something that’s been forbidden in Texas for decades, although that’s finally changing — actually have lower rates of sexual activity and teen births than those that focus solely on abstinence.
The biggest irony in the Title X battle is that Texas continues to have one of the highest teen birth rates in the nation, and it boasts the dubious distinction of the highest repeat teen birth rate in the nation.
So, yes, by all means, let’s make it harder for teens to get birth control. Genius move, Texas.
A final word on all those virginity-pledgers: Such vows are not as protective as proponents would like to believe, not by a long shot. An analysis showed that nearly 9 out of 10 minors who pledged to remain virgins until marriage ended up having sexual intercourse before tying the knot.
Personally, I don’t think minors should be having sex.
Adolescence, with all its hormones and melodrama and ongoing brain development, is a complicated enough time as it is, without adding the burden of sexual intercourse, which layers on a confusing and overwhelming factor into the stew, for both females and males. (And, yes, I speak from experience.)
This is true even if such action doesn’t result in pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.
It’s just too much, too soon.
Adolescence should be a time of curiosity and experimentation, a bold, safe and exciting forging of the self, a stage when kids get to explore and develop just who they are in this world, and who they dream of becoming as adults. Sex introduces a distracting and potentially derailing element to this quest.
And here’s the thing. We know what protects kids from having too-early and unsafe sex, just as we know what protects them from other forms of risky behavior, such as experimentation with alcohol or drugs.
It’s this: Parents who foster warm, open and loving communication with their teens. (Also, parents who are there, not caught up in their own problems and psychodramas.) Schools and other organizations that foster and nurture their young charges, encouraging their hopes and pouring on loving attention. Communities and extended networks of care that enwrap teens in protective stewardship, buffeting them from the inevitable storms of teen life.
That’s all great and good, and in a perfect world it would be enough. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Far from it.
Until we do, we need to make sure that teens who become sexually active — and over half of U.S. teens have had intercourse by age 18 — will be able to protect themselves from the potentially life-squelching consequences.
In Texas, that has now become a more remote prospect. The judge’s recent ruling on Title X is in line with the ever-widening attacks on anyone who doesn’t conform to Republican lawmakers’ strict, ultraorthodox conservative beliefs.
First, they came for women’s reproductive right to abortion. Then they went after transgender kids and their families. Next up were those who are gender nonbinary. Now teenagers’ confidential access to contraception is on the chopping block.
Add in the long-running animus toward immigrants and any school curricula that acknowledges this country’s historical racism and you have the whole depressing charcuterie board of right-wing targets.
Pretty soon, the only demographic group in Texas that will be safe to enjoy their full rights as human beings stands to be white, native born, straight cis-gender males ages 18 and older.
What’s at stake here is the ability of our youth to avoid the pitfalls of early sexual activity and go on to lead full and satisfying lives.
One physician told the Guttmacher Institute, a national research and policy group that advocates for reproductive rights, that he sees the consequences of teens not being able to access contraception in his office every day.
Lost futures. Lost hopes. Lost health.
“We have to face the reality that a majority of teens will have sex by age 18, so we need to do more to help prepare them to have healthy relationships,” said Florida pediatrician Dr. Vinny Chulani. “If we don’t, we have no one but ourselves to blame for our nation’s high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.”