For the past year, New York City schools have tested a pilot program that provides Plan B, or the "morning-after pill," free of cost to teenage girls without parental consent in 13 high schools across the city. The program has had a particular impact on Latina students -- many of the pilot schools are located in areas with high Latino populations, including Queens and the Bronx.
Although the program -- called CATCH, or Connecting Adolescents To Comprehensive Health -- allows parents to opt-out their daughters, only 1 to 2 percent of parents have chosen to do so after letters were sent to their homes, according to Deborah Kaplan, assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Maternal, Infant and Reproductive Health for the NYC Department of Health. The pilot program, in which school nurses and physicians are allowed to distribute the morning-after pill, is the first of its type in the city, and its effectiveness in decreasing high school pregnancies has yet to be determined.
By most estimates, teen pregnancy rates have fallen dramatically in recent years, both nationally and in New York City. Latina teenagers, a group who have had the highest rates of pregnancy in the last decade, have seen the most significant drop across the country, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The largest decrease in teen pregnancy in New York City was seen in the Bronx -- a borough that is more than half Hispanic. The Bronx experienced a 34 percent fall in teen pregnancy rates between 2001 and 2010, according to Kaplan.
Increased access to affordable contraception is the primary reason for the lower level of Latina teen pregnancies, says Maria Elena Perez, the Deputy Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), who calls New York City's CATCH program "a victory for teen Latinas."
According to Perez, it is a common misconception that Latina teens have higher rates of pregnancy because they more sexually active than non-Latinas.
"They are not more sexually active. In truth, Latina teens are not able to access birth control at the same rate," Perez said. Language, immigration status, cost, and transportation are all some of the most common barriers to birth control access, she noted.
All parents should talk to their children about sexual and reproductive health, Perez says.
"It's definitely critically important that parents talk to their kids about the importance of reproductive health and contraception. But we know that that doesn't always happen," she said.
Both Perez and Kaplan say the program recognizes the reality of how teens deal with pregnancy and that it is a step in the right direction towards lower teen pregnancy rates in the city.
Some critics say the initiative encourages unhealthy decision-making when it comes to sex. Still others, like Pania Palacios, the mother of a sophomore at one of the participating CATCH schools, say the use birth control should require parental oversight. Palacios never received the letter allowing her to remove her daughter from the program, and she wasn't happy about it, she told the New York Post:
"Parents should know if their daughter is pregnant."