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Birth Control Access Amid Coronavirus Pandemic Op-Ed

Why Young People Need Over-the-Counter Birth Control Now More Than Ever

I grew up in Oak Ridge, TN, a rural town outside of Knoxville. It's always been hard to talk about anything related to sexual health with my classmates, much less how we were getting birth control. But the truth is, as difficult as getting birth control has been my entire teen life, it's even more difficult today, with the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the need to eliminate barriers to birth control. With people encouraged to stay home and resources being directed toward managing the public health crisis, requiring a prescription to get birth control pills serves as a roadblock to care that can disproportionately impact young people like the ones I grew up with.

At my public school, sex ed consisted of a man from a local religious organization who told us that having sex was the worst decision he ever made.
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Across the country, young people already face some of the most significant barriers to safely accessing contraception. These include misinformation, inability to see a doctor for a prescription, transportation barriers, lack of insurance coverage, and cost. At my public school, sex ed consisted of a man from a local religious organization who told us that having sex was the worst decision he ever made. His approach to abstinence education did not spur anyone to avoid sexual activity, but instead left kids ignorant on the subject matter he was there to "teach." Messaging like this, which treated sex as something to be afraid of, made birth control out to be a taboo subject and left us in the dark about how to manage our reproductive health.

Barriers to birth control are nothing new; my friends and I have never been able to openly talk about birth control out of fear of being slut-shamed, misunderstood, or shut down in our small community. As I finish my senior year of high school via Zoom, I'm thinking of my friends who don't have supportive parents that will allow them to get birth control. Some of those friends go to a discreet health clinic 30 minutes away to get free checkups and birth control. With the pandemic restricting travel, I don't know how they'll get there. Friends in college who left their birth control in their dorms when they left for spring break, expecting to come back, now have no way of getting contraception. Missing milestones like our senior prom and high school graduation is one thing. Going without essential healthcare is another.

Reliable hormonal contraception empowers young people like me with the autonomy we need to care for ourselves and thrive in one of the most transitional and uncertain phases in our lives. Whether we aspire to higher education, work to support ourselves and our families, or leave home for the first time, all of us need birth control options that fit our needs. Especially right now, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, we must be able to get birth control pills at the drugstore without unnecessary trips to the doctor to get a prescription.

Making birth control pills available over the counter, fully covered by insurance, affordable, and available to people of all ages could solve so many of the barriers my friends and I face when it comes to addressing our basic reproductive healthcare needs. This is a popular idea amongst people my age: a Teen Vogue survey found 76 percent of young people ages 18 to 34 support making birth control pills available without a prescription. Medical organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association support making the switch to over-the-counter birth control.

In my hometown, several classmates are afraid to take birth control because of myths about ugly side effects.

Birth control is extremely safe and effective for people of all ages — and access to reliable birth control lowers rates of unintended pregnancy and often helps people be more financially stable. This information is vital to share. In my hometown, several classmates are afraid to take birth control because of myths about ugly side effects. At this critical time in our lives, young people must have the resources we need to be in control of our bodies, our lives, and our futures.

Making birth control available over the counter won't erase all the shame and stigma attached to sexuality, but it will ensure that young people like me and my friends have the resources needed to be responsible about our health and our actions. This is a critical investment in our future that's so desperately needed in communities like mine. We may not be able to control what is happening in the world right now, but we should still be able to control what is happening with our bodies.

Lauren Schenk lives in Oak Ridge, TN, and will be attending Macalester College in the fall to study political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

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