Yesterday, the House voted 87-2 in favor of a bill by Rep. Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis) that would require public colleges and universities in Arkansas to develop an “action plan” to combat teen pregnancy.
It’s a fine idea. It’s a bill that deserved to pass. It’s also frustratingly incomplete because of what it doesn’t mention: contraception.
When presenting HB 1534, Ferguson noted that two-thirds of teen pregnancies are among 18- and 19-year-olds — that is, young adults who are leaving high school and perhaps entering college or community college. The bill mandates the action plan to include information at college orientation dealing with the subject of unplanned pregnancies, as well as the creation of a mentorship program to pair students with younger teens. Ferguson said it’s patterned on a similar bill from Mississippi, which is one of the few states in the nation to have a higher teen pregnancy rate than Arkansas.
Then one of the bill’s cosponsors, Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale), rose to make sure Ferguson didn’t forget to emphasize a crucial point. “The bill also includes an abstinence component, correct?” she asked.
Ferguson assured her that it does. The text of the bill says the higher education action plan must “integrate information that is recognized as medically accurate by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists about the prevention of unplanned pregnancy into academic courses if and when appropriate, including without limitation abstinence education.”
Remember, these are college students we’re talking about. Autonomous 18 and 19-year-olds, newly minted adults in the eyes of the law, many of whom are about to move into dorms together and attend parties and, just possibly, drink alcohol. We’re going to prevent unplanned pregnancies in this population by … delivering a college orientation lecture about abstinence? That better be a pretty good lecture.
Make no mistake: Abstinence is only mentioned in one line and is not the main focus of Ferguson’s bill. It’s laudable that the bill requires the information integrated into academic courses be “recognized as medically accurate” by OB/GYNs, something that the Jackson Free Press says was not in the Mississippi bill. And, HB 1534 is written broadly enough the action plan it mandates might well include improving student access to contraceptives. (“Identify opportunities to raise awareness of and provide resources for the prevention of unplanned pregnancies across the entire student population,” it says, delicately.)
Still, how can there be an honest discussion of reducing teen pregnancy rates without directly confronting the issue of birth control? Last fall, the results were published from a study in St. Louis that provided free birth control to sexually active teenagers in that city. When young people chose long-acting contraceptives — such as IUDs or hormonal implants — the results were dramatic.
Pregnancy and abortion rates among participants were less than a quarter the rates among their sexually active peers nationwide. In fact, those rates were lower than they were among teenagers as a whole (including those who didn’t self-identify as being “sexually active”).
The effectiveness of long-acting contraceptives in decimating teen pregnancy rates led the American Academy of Pediatrics last fall to urge that doctors begin recommending IUDs and other such methods to sexually active teenagers (preferably in combination with condoms, to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases).
In closing for her bill on Monday, Ferguson said that reducing the unplanned pregnancy rate is “one of the most pro-life things we can do,” considering that an estimated 18 percent of unplanned pregnancies in the state end in an abortion. She’s certainly right about that. Also, of course, as a legislator in Arkansas, she’s constrained in what she can and can’t say. But surely if we really want to address unplanned pregnancies among 18- and 19-year-old Arkansans, increasing access to long-acting contraceptives should be at the very center of the plan — not whispered about in the margins.