Yesterday on "Fox and Friends," Jim Pinkerton and I debated a Fox News Poll concerning children and the availability of contraception. Fifty-seven percent said that giving contraceptives to children as young as 11 years old "was a nutty idea"; 26 percent said it was a brilliant idea; however, a full 83 percent of those polled said that 11-year-olds were having sex.
This poll question originated from a Maine middle school that is making a "full range of contraception available to students in grades six to eight." It was shocking to those of us who grew up in schools where girls could only wear skirts that landed in the middle of the knee. However, the statistics show that it makes public health sense for the school system to make contraception available to these children.
In the state of Maine, the number of middle school children who reported having sexual intercourse dropped from 23 percent in 1997 to 13 percent in 2005. The numbers, if they are accurate, are definitely going in the right direction, but as Nancy Birkhimer, director of teen health programs for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services says, "Thirteen percent is still more than one in ten students."
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In King Middle School, children must have their parents' permission to receive health care, but the law in Maine does not mandate that the parents know what services a child receives. Many parents both on the left and right side of the political spectrum want to know what their children are being taught in the schools and what kind of medical services and sex education their children are receiving. Many parents believe that it is their job not the schools to provide sex education and information to their children.
In a perfect world, it would be great if the responsibility for sex education could be handled at home. However, we have all grown up since the "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" fantasy of the mid-20th century. The amount of dysfunctional and abusive families in America (as well as other countries) is staggeringly high.
The numbers are not pretty. The state of Missouri estimates that 25 to 50 percent of children experience some form of child abuse including sexual, physical and neglect. In one study of college students, 17 percent of female students reported sexual abuse before the age 18. In the most recent child abuse data available, 1.2 percent of children had been reported abused, and that was for only one year. That figure multiplied by 17 years that is quite a significant number of reported cases. In one economically depressed community, up to 40 percent of adult women using a general health clinic reported severe childhood maltreatment based on a standard trauma questionnaire.
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Parents who abuse their children or do nothing when their children are abused by others (family members, boyfriends, etc.) cannot be the educators of these children. These parents can't even be the ones who should sign on the dotted line to allow their children to receive health services through the school clinic system as many of these parents have secrets to hide from the authorities.
Many of the people opposed to giving sexually active children contraception through the school system also believe that we should not have needle exchange for those who are addicted to drugs. The argument is the same: If we don't treat it then somehow it won't be as big a problem. It is in fact the opposite. Every needle that is exchanged gives the health care worker an opportunity to ask the addict if they want help. Every time a child comes in to discuss a need for contraception, a school nurse has an opportunity to intervene in what is most surely an unhealthy relationship.
The polling indicates that we want our society to be different than it is. We believe that children as young as 11 are having sex, but we don't want to give them help in preventing sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. It is our shared delusion that somehow giving contraception to these children is going to spark more sexual activity in these children. Instead, the availability of contraception might stop the cycle of child abuse as well as the need for these children to repeat with their peers what they least understand.