Ultimately, however, parents may have more influence on their kids’ sex lives than they think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite studies showing that parents can have a strong impact on when kids start having sex and whether they talk to their sexual partner about birth control. But their sway works both ways. Parental fear is also associated with reluctance to seek birth control.
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In Washington State, which gives minors autonomous birth-control rights, a long-standing state-based Medicaid program called Take Charge is tasked with helping low-income women and teens seek family planning services, even if they don’t have parental consent. The program has seen a dramatic increase of student IUDs in recent years. In 2010, the first year LARCs were available to Seattle-area students, Neighborcare Health (which operates six SBHCs in the city), placed approximately 10 devices. By 2015, more than 500 students had received an implant or an IUD from Neighborcare.
This expansion has also caused concern. Over the summer, a spate of headlines pointed out the irony that a Seattle sixth-grader could theoretically use her lunch break to get an IUD but not a soda or candy bar from a vending machine. (On top of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, Seattle has one of the nation’s toughest in-school junk-food bans.) But advocates say that both types of school policies—stringent food guidelines and accessible IUDs—stem from a holistic, prevention-based strategy that encourages students to make healthy choices for their long-term well-being.
So far, the numbers haven’t shown that particularly young students are accessing contraception services. In late August, King County and Seattle public-health officials said they had no record of an 11- or 12-year-old seeking an IUD. If a child that young did ask a school clinic for birth control, public-health experts argue it would raise red flags and staff would consult a social worker.
School health providers say they make contraceptive decisions carefully and on a case-by-base basis, deciding what’s best for the student given her age, emotional health, and overall medical history. In other words, just because a student requests contraception doesn’t guarantee that she’ll receive it. “As a matter of public health and human rights, no law requires a pediatrician to provide an IUD or any particular method of family planning, at school or otherwise,” said Heather Boonstra, who oversees public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Schools can also choose to require parental consent even if the state law doesn’t do the same. Although Colorado, for example, grants minors autonomous birth-control rights, SBHCs in Denver require that students get parental consent—regardless of the service—explained the Colorado SBHC physician Steve Federico. “In reality, family planning is a tiny part of what we do at school-based health centers,” Federico said, noting that such services account for fewer than 10 percent of visits at Colorado’s school health centers. “Most of all, we teach students how to stay healthy.”