Safe Medicine? More, Younger Girls Starting On Birth Control

More and more girls are starting on the birth control pill at a younger age.

July 22, 2011 -- Pat Fatemi says there is not a moment of the day that she isn't worrying about her 13-year-old daughter, Daria.

She's concerned about everything, from the activities she's involved in to the pressures she faces from her middle school classmates.

"The kids are just so far advanced, talking about sex," the Tuxedo, N.Y., mom told "Good Morning America." "It's really, really scary."

Those fears prompted Fatemi to make a doctor's appointment.

Not a pediatrician for her young daughter, or even a psychologist to address her own fears, but an appointment with a gynecologist to discuss putting her daughter on the birth control pill.

"No matter how much I tell her and talk to her, she doesn't know what going to happen when she's with a boy and it all happens too fast," Fatemi told "GMA." "So I'd want to get her on the birth control pill as soon as possible."

Fatemi is not alone in thinking that birth control is appropriate for girls her daughter's age.

The number of teenage girls on the birth control pill has jumped 50 percent in the past decade in the U.S. alone, according to a study released this March by Thomson Reuters.

Today, one in five American girls between the ages of 13 and 18, two-and-a-half million teens in all, are on the birth control, the study found, and doctors say the age at which teens start on the pill is getting younger and younger.

"We have put people on the pill who are as young as 12," Dr. Mary Rosser, a gynecologist in Larchmont, N.Y., who treats adolescents told "GMA."

Rosser attributes the growth of birth control use among teens to the increasingly young age at which girls begin to menstruate, some as young as age 10, and the rising number of sexually active teens.

"Almost half of teenagers ages 15 to 19 report they have had sexual intercourse at least once," Rosser said.

Rosser says most parents come to doctors, seeking birth control prescriptions for their daughters, in order to treat their teens' acne, regulate menstrual periods, and to prevent teen pregnancy.

"I think it's okay to have their teenager on the pill if they are ready to go on it and they ask for it," Rosser told "GMA" of the approach she takes with her own patients. "I think it's safer than having a teen pregnancy."

While Rosser takes a proactive approach towards birth control for teens, the rising popularity of the drug does not come without controversy.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology asserts the pill is safe, but acknowledges it is associated with a heightened risk for blood clots.

Several studies in recent years have also suggested a possible link between the pill and breast cancer, with organizations like the World Health Organization even calling the pill a carcinogenic.

"I've found that some women who've been on birth control pills for a while have trouble conceiving," Dr. Erika Schultz, a New York City-based internist who specializes in women and hormone issues, said to "GMA."

Schultz said she believes the pill can do more harm than good, and worries that doctors are overprescribing the pill to a generation of teens seduced by glossy ads put forth by an oral contraceptive industry that generates sales of $4 billion per year.

"I see a lot of women who bring me their daughters with symptoms of fibromyalgia, mood swings, depression or weight gain that disappear when the birth control pills are removed," she said.

Rosser reports there is growing talk in the gynecological community of offering more contraceptive options for teens, such as IUDs, which provide a safe, effective, non-hormonal alternative, but the devices are not yet being offered to the greater population of teenagers.

The divided opinions espoused by the medical community, and the limited options, have left mothers of teenagers with a dilemma: do they expose their teenage, or younger, daughters to the pill in hopes of preventing pregnancy, or wait until they are 18 or older to let them make the decision?

Weighing Medical Risks Against Pregnancy

"That's all I think about 24 hours a day," Fatemi said of balancing medical concerns for her 13-year-old daughter, Daria, with worries for her future. "That she will be everything she wants to be without interference of pregnancy or babies or anything."

"Good Morning America" posed the hot topic question faced by Fatemi and so many other moms to a panel of six mothers of teenage girls in the greater New York area. Some mothers have children on the pill; some do not.

All agreed it is a complicated matter.

"I would much rather have her on birth control if I even felt that she might be sexually active or soon," Alicia Penny said. "I would put her on birth control immediately rather than have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy."

While the majority of moms on the panel agreed with Penny that it is okay for teenagers like their own daughters to be on birth control, all agreed it is, without doubt, a complicated matter.

"It's hard for me because I have a value system that we've tried to promote abstinence," said Esther Goetz, the mother of a teenage girl. "I'm kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum if I knew they were sexually active."

As for the issue of whether putting their daughters on the pill would seem to place the girls under increased pressure to have sex, or give them unspoken permission to be sexually active --an argument frequently raised by birth control opponents--the moms acknowledged girls on the pill may be more likely to say 'yes' to sex.

"The answer is probably," Helen Jonsen said of whether teen girls may feel more pressure to say yes to sex if their boyfriends know they are taking birth control. Jonsen says she has daughters who are currently on the pill.

Still, Jonsen was like other moms on the panels whose daughters are currently on the pill, who said they treat the pill just like any other medication or daily personal habit.

Jonsen says she lays the pills out for her daughters, alongside their vitamins in the morning.

"It would be like 'Did you brush your teeth before you left the house?'" mom Ofelia Almedina told "GMA." "Did you brush your teeth before bed, did you take your pill?"

The teenage girls we spoke with, a panel of six 14- to 19-year-olds also in the New York area, agreed that the use of birth control today among their friends is more frequent than rare, driven largely by the fear of getting pregnant.

"Definitely," one teen replied when asked if pregnancy is a top fear among her friends. "I think being pregnant, first of all, and then not having the person that got you pregnant to be by your side and supporting you."

The teens said the pressure to not get pregnant is just one more responsibility they have come to accept, along with the responsibility to not catch a sexually transmitted disease.

"I think most teenagers know that you need to use a condom if you want to prevent any STDs," said one.

"I know a few girls who sometimes they don't tell their boyfriends that they're on the pill just so that they'll use a condom with it," said another.

Even with the growing acceptance among moms of teens using birth control, the teens themselves still want the decision to remain their own.

"I think it's a good thing if the girl's parents are part of the decision to go on the pill," said one. "But I don't think the girl should be put on the pill. I think she should have a say in the matter."

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