By Doug Ireland
---- — It’s a decision that’s encouraging for some, but troublesome to others.
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday it was lowering the age at which teenagers could buy the morning-after pill without a prescription, the move attracted a lot of attention nationwide.
Reproductive rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, supported the decision, but right-to-life groups were strongly opposed.
Some public health officials, while not taking a formal stand on a politically polarizing issue such as birth control, admitted they were encouraged that the decision would make emergency contraception available to more young women.
Only a day after the FDA announcement, Dr. Jose Montero, New Hampshire’s director of public health, announced the Granite State had the lowest teen birth rate in the nation. Massachusetts is second on that list, according to federal statistics. The other New England states are high on that list as well.
In 2012, the New Hampshire teen birth rate was 13.8 for every 1,000 girls between ages 15 and 19. That’s a drop from 15.7 in 2010.
Massachusetts health officials made a similar announcement last month, saying the state’s teen birth rate — 17.2 births per 1,000 in 2010 — was the lowest it’s ever recorded. That was a decrease from 2009, when the Bay State rate was 19.5 per 1,000. The study did not include figures for 2012.
In 2010, the national average for teen birth rates was 34.2 per 1,000 girls. The state with the highest teen birth rate that year was Mississippi at 55 per 1,000 teens.
Advocates of the FDA’s decision to make the morning-after pill available to 15-year-olds without a prescription said it will help reduce those rates and encourage more discussion of pregnancy prevention in the home.
Previously, girls had to be 17 to get the pill without a prescription. The FDA also decided the pill could be sold on pharmacy shelves instead of being kept behind the counter.
Janis Lilly, coordinator of the Teen Information Parenting Success program in Derry, said the decision expands the alternatives available to young people. She runs a support group at The Upper Room for pregnant young women between the ages of 13 and 23.
“To have another option means it would open the discussion up at the dinner table even more,” Lilly said.
She attributes the region’s low birth rates to increased access to health care education and services, and more of a willingness to talk about sensitive subjects such as birth control, especially in New Hampshire.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the New England culture,” Lilly said. “I don’t think there is as much hesitancy to talk about (birth control).”
She also praised the state’s education system for promoting sex education in school.
“I think New Hampshire has a really strong health education curriculum,” Lilly said.
Jennifer Frizzell, senior adviser for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, agreed improved access to contraception and health education are two major factors responsible for New Hampshire’s low teen birth rate.
Making the morning-after pill readily available to more teenage girls will help reduce the birth rate even further, she said.
“Certainly, we think any increased access to a form of birth control is good policy and good sense,” Frizzell said.
Patricia Tilley of New Hampshire’s Bureau of Population, Health and Community Services also agreed that statewide efforts to increase access to emergency contraception and health education are making a difference.
“Education and prevention are our goal,” she said.
But representatives for right-to-life groups strongly oppose the FDA’s decision, saying availability of the morning-after pill to younger teens encourages them to have sex without considering all the consequences.
They also question whether the pill, which includes large doses of hormones, is medically safe for anyone — never mind young teens.
“There are a lot of concerns,” said Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. “I think it’s damaging for women, let alone children. I consider it quite damaging for 15-year-olds.”
Fox said the FDA made its decision without conducting enough studies on the potential medical effects of the morning-after pill on teenagers’ bodies.
“I think it’s one of those things that will come back to haunt us,” Fox said.
She said hormone replacement therapy has proven dangerous for some women. The best way to prevent teen pregnancy is abstinence, Fox said.
Kurt Wuelper, president of New Hampshire Right to Life, also questions the potential medical impact of young teens taking the pill. He harshly criticized the FDA’s decision and agreed with Fox that abstinence is the only way to prevent teen pregnancy.
“I think it’s an atrocity,” he said. “Emergency contraception is a lie. It is not even contraception because it does not prevent pregnancy.”
Selling the pill to young teens without a prescription is an assault on a parent’s right to be involved in the decision, he said.
“I can’t imagine the FDA ever allowing this to be sold over the counter,” he said. “No parental notification, no parental oversight — nothing.”