[OPINION | Dash of SAS] What if we called it birth control instead?

Ana P. Santos
[OPINION | Dash of SAS] What if we called it birth control instead?
Referring to birth control as ‘family planning methods’ sends the signal that these are only for people who are married and want to start a family – not for sexually-active young people who aren’t ready to get pregnant


 Jeremy, a 16-year-old from Malabon, sat quietly on the clinic bed beside the baby she had just given birth to. I asked her if she was considering family planning to give her space till her next pregnancy.  She gave me a blank look. “Family planning? Hindi ba pang-mag-asawa lang ‘yun?” (Isn’t that just for married people?) (Read Dash of SAS: Education is the best form of contraception)

That was back in 2008. 

A few weeks ago, in Cavite, I met 20-year-old Marilyn Masinog, who is pregnant for the 4th time. She first got pregnant at 13 and became a mother at 14. Her friends, Jay-Ann and Jessa May, are all teen mothers. Jessa May, 22, has two children. They had heard about “family planning” – condoms, pills and other birth control methods – but thought that as single young women who had not yet gotten pregnant, they could not avail themselves of those options.

Grace, Nikka, Jaycel, Clarisse, Roselyn, and Daisy live in Tondo, Manila. They all first became pregnant as teenagers. Some of them have more than one child. I met them in September when they came in for an interview for our Teen Mom Scholarship Program. All 6 of the young women talked about sex and avoiding pregnancy with their friends, but they heard about pills, implants, and IUDs from their mothers and titas. Those methods, they said, were family planning and were for the women who were married (also meaning living with their partner) and already had children.

This illustrates the paradox of the Philippines’ sex problem: we have sex, but we don’t talk enough about how to prevent unplanned pregnancies. To be more specific, our current framing of birth control as “family planning and responsible parenthood” creates a psychological barrier that keeps out young people who are sexually active but do not yet want to become parents. 

Skyrocketing teen pregnancy 

The Philippines has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the southeast Asian region. Every day, an estimated 500 teenage girls become mothers. A growing number have more than one child before the age of 20. Teen pregnancy – a life event that is 100% avoidable – has been declared a national public health emergency.

On the one hand, there is no scarcity of sex. 

There’s internet porn. Green jokes and sexually-loaded innuendo are casually tossed into casual conversations. Sex is paraded around on noontime TV by scantily-clothed women shimmying to the latest pop song. 

We giggle and cover our mouths with our hands even as we demurely refer to a penis as a bird and a vagina as a flower. The more daring will outdo each other with vulgar sex jokes – the more scandalous, the better. 

On the other hand, when it comes down to discussing the risks associated with having unprotected sex, we clamp down. Just say no to sex. Close your legs. Pray the temptation away. Even as the science tells us that condoms, pills, and implants are all more effective than the most ardent and sincere of prayers. 

We’re giving out mixed and muddled messages. 

This matters a great deal when you’re 17, the age when, research tells us, about 23% of Filipino youth first start to have sex.  

As teens, they want or are considering having sex but don’t want to be parents yet. All the messaging around them tells them that sex is hot, it feels good, it’s pleasurable – but stops there. Avoiding unplanned pregnancy, sexually-transmitted infections, and even the emotional pitfalls of having sex are restricted topics, meant only for married people – the people who are seen as “allowed” to have sex. 

The sex that young people know is cloaked in myths and misconceptions and none of the science of protection and prevention. About 78% of first sexual encounters among young people are unprotected. According to a recent report, about 30 to 50 pregnancies per year are among 10-year-olds. In an interview at a maternity teen clinic, the doctor said that most of their cases that involve a child as young as 10 are cases of incest or rape. 

The power of words

Referring to birth control as “family planning methods” carries all the connotations of how couples can plan how many children they want and can afford. 

Words have the power to frame concepts. Words tell us what things are for, who they are for, and who they are not for. And the term “family planning” sends the signal that these methods are only for people who are presumably married and want to start a family or already have one. 

The country is scrambling to address our runaway teen pregnancy rates. In our desperation, we pitch baseless solutions, like having separate classrooms for boys and girls. 

But what if we expanded the current conversation to be more inclusive and attuned to the needs of our young people who are sexually active but want to avoid unplanned pregnancies?  

They have the same right to this information as married or older couples do, and yet we keep this from them. Ironically enough, birth control information is made available once you are pregnant and already have a child. For many teenage girls, this is an intervention that is too little, too late. 

Let’s try to reimagine having a different pregnancy prevention conversation – one that considers what our young people want and what they need, according to them, not according to what we adults might think is right for them.

What if we called it for what it is? Birth control. An option to plan and control when you get pregnant and how often. An option that is viable for anyone who is sexually active. 

Would it empower our young people to think about birth control as an option of a reponsible individual? 

Teen pregnancy is a complex problem that will need layered solutions. One obvious barrier is the clause in the current Reproductive Health Law that restricts minors from availing themselves of birth control at public health clinics without parental consent. Comprehensive sex education that covers everything from abstinence to IUDs and vasectomy, knowledge about having healthy romantic relationships, access to contraception methods, as well as the guidance of parents or trusted adults are also interventions that must be included.

It will be a long and continuous dialogue, but what if we started by having honest and open conversations about pregnancy prevention, one that is more inclusive than “family planning”? What if we started calling it birth control instead?Rappler.com



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