Vail Daily column: Breaking the cycle
With a rate of 8.5 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age, few countries in the world have rates as low as the Netherlands. However, 60 years ago, the Netherlands had one of the highest birth rates in Europe. A tiny country, it was justifiably concerned about overpopulation. According to the Netherlands Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, “Within a short space of time, birth control became an integral part of health care.” Access to contraception meant planned fertility, with the result that the population growth stabilized.
The World Health Organization emphasizes that a woman’s ability to control her fertility is central not only to her own health but also the health of her family. Planned pregnancies result in better maternal and fetal health due to higher rates of prenatal care, resulting in the delivery of healthier babies.
Last year, I wrote about a program in Colorado that achieved an astounding 42 percent reduction in the number of abortions among women ages 15-19. Furthermore, the birthrate in that same group declined 40 percent. The program provides free or low-cost long-term reversible contraceptives to young women. The savings in avoided Medicaid payments is estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. The societal benefit is hard to quantify but easy to imagine. Across Colorado there are thousands of young women who will not be mothers before they are physically, emotionally or financially prepared. These women will have a chance to finish school and plan for a future as a young adult, not as a single parent. It is not the only factor in breaking the cycle of poverty, but it is a significant one.
Recognizing that contraceptives are a women’s health issue was not the only proactive measure taken by the Netherlands. The Netherlands recognizes that sexual development is a normal human process and that children are entitled to honest, accurate information on the topic. Therefore, the Netherlands’ approach to comprehensive sexuality education begins in kindergarten. Relax; there is no explicit reference to sex in the kindergarten classes. Rather, instruction for the younger children focuses on love, respect and relationships.
According to a 2015 global review by UNESCO, “Sexuality education does not hasten sexual activity.” In the Netherlands teens do not have sex at an age earlier than their peers in Europe or America. Furthermore, teens in the Netherlands are more likely to use contraceptives resulting in the lowest teen pregnancy rate in the world, and a rate that is five times lower than the United States. By contrast, in America many states have no mandated sex education and many that do focus on abstinence. Ample research exists demonstrating this is a colossal waste of time, effort and taxpayer dollars. A survey conducted by the University of Washington from 2002-2003 of teens between the ages of 15-17 found, “In comparing abstinence-only programs with comprehensive sex education, comprehensive sex education was associated with a 50 percent lower risk of teen pregnancy.” A report by the National Center for Biotechnology Information published in 2011 was more blunt, “ … data show clearly that abstinence-only education … is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.”
Availability of contraceptives and comprehensive sex education are two public policy strategies empirically proven to reduce teen pregnancy. Eagle County is fortunate to be able to augment the effective Colorado long-term reversible contraceptives program with an innovative education curriculum developed by the Red Ribbon Project. Originally conceived to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Red Ribbon Project expanded its mandate to provide a wide-ranging curriculum of 16 classes for students in grades 5 through 12. Through grants and private donations these programs are provided at no cost to the school district. Additionally, a culturally based program has been developed specifically for our county’s Latino youth population.
Teens are bombarded with conflicting messages about sexuality, alcohol and drug use, body image and more. They do not make decisions in a vacuum. Turmoil at home, low self-esteem, and peer pressure can result in unhealthy choices, such as engaging in sexual activity before they are ready or prepared. The Red Ribbon Project aims to break that cycle by providing teens with a toolkit of coping strategies and an abundance of factual, nonjudgmental information.
Claire Noble can be found online at http://www.clairenoble.org and “Claire Noble Writer” on Facebook.