New America Media, Commentary, Jessica González-Rojas, Posted: Dec 09, 2011
This week, politics interfered with healthcare when young women were again denied the ability to obtain over-the-counter emergency contraception (EC) despite recommendations from the nation’s leading health experts.
After extensive review of safety data, the FDA decided to lift restrictions on access to emergency contraception for teens. In a deeply disturbing political move, however, the nation’s top health official, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, instructed the FDA not to follow their own recommendation and instead to continue requiring that young women obtain a prescription for emergency contraception.
As a result, Latina teens will still face insurmountable barriers to using this important birth control option. The Latino community has the highest uninsured rate of any group, and immigrant teens typically have very little access to traditional healthcare. Emergency contraception must be taken within five days, making obtaining and filling a prescription both costly and impractical for most Latina teens.
Young Latinas face the greatest obstacles to accessing birth control, and this political interference in healthcare has only reinforced a harmful climate that leaves Latina youth without options. Because of immigration status, lack of health insurance, residence in rural areas, and other structural barriers to accessing health care and services, young Latinas will be particularly affected by failures to increase access to EC, which represents only the latest instance of mixed messages sent to women about their rights and place in society.
Pregnancy rates among Latina teens is higher than other groups, and have fallen more slowly than in other teen subpopulations. Misconceptions about the underlying factors contributing to unintended pregnancy rates continue to perpetuate a stigma about Latinas rather than promote solutions. In fact, Latinas do not report having sex more than white women, but are at higher risk for pregnancy because they have significantly lower rates of contraceptive use. This disparity in contraceptive use is based not on simple preference, but is closely connected to social and economic inequity.
Barriers to accessing birth control should be torn down for young Latinas, not reinforced. Yet this year we’ve seen state after state slash access to the programs that help some Latinas overcome these barriers. Punitive immigration policies and cultural and linguistic differences often make Latinas the last to know what birth control options are available. The ability to directly access emergency contraception in a pharmacy could be a critical last-chance for Latina teens to control their fertility.
Lack of access to birth control in this country has always been the result of political agendas, not health concerns. In a legal case filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights (Tummino v. Hamburg), our organization urged the courts to intervene and grant young women access to over-the-counter emergency contraception. An earlier ruling from 2009, issued by federal Judge Edward Korman, found that with regard to older teens the FDA “acted in bad faith and in response to political pressure.”
It is imperative that Secretary Sebelius recognize that failing to grant young women (ages 16 and younger) prescription-free access to EC is inconsistent with the view that preventing pregnancy is a healthcare issue and inconsistent with the goal that people of all ages, sexes and ethnicities be given the same opportunity to thrive.
It is imperative that Latinos/as speak out in support of FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg’s decision to recommend over-the-counter access to emergency contraception for teens. Any political gains that have resulted from the denial of her recommendation are made most significantly on the backs of young Latinas.
Jessica González-Rojas is the executive director of National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, which works to secure access to reproductive health and justice for Latinas, their families and their communities through public education, community mobilization and policy advocacy.