World Contraception Day: We Were Fifteen

By: Mariko Rasmussen, public health student at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in Reproductive and Family Health.

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They say kids in Los Angeles grow up fast. Sitting across from a girlfriend over lunch the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I learned there could be truth in this statement. Following a pause in our conversation, she admitted her real reason for calling to see me – she’d had an abortion a few weeks prior. I sat in disbelief. We were fifteen.

My friend had feared that the pill would cause weight gain or her mother might find the pills or condoms, and her boyfriend hated how condoms felt – the distorted reasoning and real concerns of a teenaged girl. I was relieved she had access to a safe and legal abortion, but disheartened she hadn’t sought out reproductive services earlier.

I was confused by her actions, considering that I sat next to her in 5th and 8th grade while we received ‘sex-ed’ together. It hadn’t been enough to hear about the reproductive system from the school librarian/nurse or shown how to put a condom on a banana during Biology class one day. It was only after she found herself facing an unintended pregnancy that she searched online for more information about reproductive and sexual health services. This first exposure to the reality that social and cultural attitudes impede the utilization of such services greatly frustrated me.

Realizing the shortcomings of reproductive health education, I decided to advocate services and educate my friends, in hopes that they would make informed decisions regarding their reproductive health before faced with the circumstance my friend found herself in. The next year I joined AIDS Awareness, a student organization, to give peer presentations on HIV/AIDS, outlining various forms of birth control and STD protection. Personally, I counseled girlfriends on services available at Planned Parenthood. Because of the program, which offered comprehensive sexuality education, I could empower other young people to access contraceptive information and services. That year, my friend started taking birth control pills. And she was happy to report that the only side effect she noticed was that her skin had cleared up.

Not everyone is as lucky as my friend was to have access to safe services. Every year, 14-16 million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 give birth, and pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death for girls this age. [1] Unplanned pregnancy rates are still high across the world, [2] and of the 68,000 maternal deaths worldwide due to unsafe abortions, almost half of those are women and girls under 19 years of age. [3]Young people have a right to accurate, unbiased contraceptive information and services that enable them to make informed decisions – decisions that can change and save lives.

1. UNFPA. No Woman Should Die Giving Life Factsheet.
2. WHO & UNFPA. From abortion to contraception: Family planning and reproductive health in CCEE/NIS. Copenhagen, 1997.
3. WHO. Unsafe abortion: global and regional estimates of the incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2003. Fifth Edition. Geneva. 2007. p.19.

This blog is part of a series on youth perspectives to celebrate World Contraception Day.

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