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WETZSTEIN: Youth take risks with birth control

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

A new report on unintended pregnancy suggests American young people are in a "fog" over contraception and they need more education on how to avoid premarital or unwanted pregnancy.

I think American youth may not be not as foggy as they appear. I think they are weary of "safe sex" messages, and/or are much more open to having babies, planned or unplanned, than their elders realize.

Let me first say that disdain for birth control is not a good idea in a culture where young people expect to be sexually active for years before marrying.

If America's unwed birthrate keeps growing at its current rate, we will hit the "tipping point" — more than 50 percent of births to single mothers — around 2018. This will be a social cataclysm.

And yet, according to the new report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, young, single, sexually active adults are not very fastidious about their use of birth control. About half of 1,800 single adults, aged 18 to 29, said they were in a sexually active relationship and didn't want to get pregnant — but about half of these adults said they used birth control irregularly or not at all.

In other words, half the couples who didn't want to get pregnant were seriously trying to avoid pregnancy and the other half were rolling the dice. Why such a disconnect? Haven't these people heard of "safe sex"?

In its report, "The Fog Zone: How Misperceptions, Magical Thinking and Ambivalence Put Young Adults at Risk for Unplanned Pregnancy," the national campaign found that:

• Many women think it's good to "take a break" from birth control every few years.

• Many women believe birth control causes bad side effects, i.e., mood swings, weight gain, bone loss, cancer, infection.

• About 60 percent of women and almost 50 percent of men think they may be infertile so they don't need birth control. (The true infertility rate for young adults is 8 percent).

• About a third of adults agree "the government is trying to limit blacks and other minority populations by encouraging the use of birth control."

A large portion of adults don't think birth control works anyway, or that "if you get pregnant, it's your time," said study co-author Kelleen Kaye.

"People just have a very negative perception" of birth control, she added.

The national campaign calls for more contraceptive-friendly sex-education messages in colleges, workplaces, the military, job training sites, medical offices and in the media.

The survey's "startling" results suggest "this country is in desperate need of a new social norm," said Sarah Brown, chief executive of the national campaign. It recommends, "Unless both partners are seeking pregnancy, and are committed to each other and to the years it takes to raise children, they should take active, careful and consistent steps to avoid it."

In my view, education is always admirable and certainly works for some people. Both the House and Senate health care reforms have funding for teen-pregnancy prevention, so there's a fighting chance contraceptive education will indeed be expanded.

In reading this report, however, I sense two bigger issues in play.

One is birth-control fatigue, i.e., weariness of safe-sex messages. Condom fatigue set in with the gay community more than a decade ago, when AIDS stopped being an immediate death sentence. That fatigue apparently has spread, and education — especially aimed at a population where 80 percent think they already have "all the information they need to avoid an unplanned pregnancy — isn't going to fix the fatigue factor.

Which leads me to my second point: These younger generations are just not as anti-baby as their elders.

They are aware of America's huge support system for fatherless families, and when you combine that support with babies' ability to (a) be adorable, (b) convey instant social status ("mother," "father") and (c) possibly convert a loving cohabiting relationship into a loving marriage, birth control seems to be something a lot of young people think they can just live without.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.