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Don't look now, but momentum is growing locally for reproductive rights and comprehensive education

For eight years, pro-choice advocates watched as federally funded abstinence-only classes expanded, the right to an abortion was truncated, and the U.S. Supreme Court grew more conservative.

Now, it's payback time. Well, sort of.

For pro-choicers, the worst of times appear to be over, with the best of times yet to begin.

The Democrat-dominated November election brought sighs of relief nationwide for those who believe in reproductive rights. Here in Colorado, Democrats retained their legislative control, and voters smashed a proposal that would have given a fertilized egg the same legal rights as a human being.

Many other issues — the economy, the wars, health care — are pushing the fight for women's health out of the headlines, even in this, National Women's Health Week. But on the ground, local advocates and educators are starting to see what they consider healthy change.

Contraceptive changes

On March 23, U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman found that Plan B — aka the morning-after pill — should be available over-the-counter to 17-year-olds, and that the Food and Drug Administration should consider making it available without a prescription to women of all ages.

Plan B is an emergency contraceptive meant to be used after unprotected intercourse to prevent pregnancy. Though it won't cause a pregnancy to abort if a fertilized egg has already implanted in the womb, right-to-lifers have claimed the pill is tantamount to abortion, making access to it a political hot potato.

Plan B was approved for prescription-only use in the U.S. in 1999. Despite study after study vouching for its safety, the FDA initially rejected repeated attempts to make it available over the counter. Finally, citing "enforcement" concerns, the FDA made it available only to women 18 and older in 2006.

In his March decision, Korman wrote the FDA has been motivated by politics, not science: "FDA upper management, including the Commissioner, wrested control over the decision-making on Plan B from staff that normally would issue the final decision ... the FDA's denial of non-prescription access without age restriction went against the recommendation of a committee of experts it had empaneled to advise it on Plan B; and the Commissioner — at the behest of political actors — decided to deny non-prescription access to women 16 and younger before FDA scientific review staff had completed their reviews."

Plan B is expected to be made available, sans prescription, to 17-year-olds — including males — in the coming weeks or months.

"It's more of a convenience thing," says Laurie Foltz, manager of the Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains office on North Academy Boulevard. "If you're both 17, and your girlfriend is at school — she's at basketball practice, she's at track or something — it might be difficult for her to get away to come in."

Locally, contraception could receive even further protection if Gov. Bill Ritter signs the Birth Control Protection Act. Designed to remove contraception from the extreme right-wing abortion debate, it states that contraception does not end a pregnancy.

Even with the changes, Plan B — and even regular birth control pills — won't be available just anywhere. Drug stores and hospitals decide what services and products they provide. A 2008 survey conducted by Prevention First Colorado found that 5.5 percent of pharmacies do not fill prescriptions for birth control, and 9.5 percent don't sell Plan B. Those numbers spike to 22 percent and nearly 40 percent, respectively, in Colorado clinics.

It's thought that access would likely improve with the passage of the long-anticipated Freedom of Choice Act, which would make the original protections of Roe v. Wade federal law and provide funding for abortions and other women's health needs. But while Obama has said he favors passing the act, he's stated it's not his priority.

In the classroom

In 2007, a new Colorado law banned abstinence-only education in public schools. Pueblo somehow missed the memo. Only now, after several years of an abstinence-only curriculum, are its public schools implementing comprehensive sex ed. Stephanie Garcia, Pueblo City Schools board president, says she's gotten a lot of flak for the change.

"E-mails, phone calls," she says. "I wish people were this passionate about math."

The board's decision came at the same time that the YMCA of Pueblo received a Bush-era federal grant to teach abstinence-only education. The organization had been hoping to bring that instruction into public classrooms; instead, the board told the YMCA to save its courses for after school and during the summer, and changed its curriculum standards to include discussions of birth control. Garcia says she hopes to take even more progressive strides — changing sex ed from an eighth-grade elective to a core subject taught starting in the fourth grade.

"We have an obligation to do our part in this," she says.

Pueblo County's pregnancy rate is second-highest in the state for girls ages 10 to 19. It also has the state's highest rate of single women ages 20 to 24 having babies, with over 57 percent of Pueblo women in that age bracket becoming mothers — often not for the first time. (El Paso County does a little better than the nation on teen pregnancy, with 39.3 births per 1,000 moms ages 15 to 19.)

Pueblo City-County Health Department head Dr. Chris Nevin-Woods, who held a summit recently to brainstorm strategies to lower teen pregnancy, says it's "a significant public health issue that affects all of us financially.

"And then there's the fact that it just adds to poverty," she says, "with many of these young girls never able to get out of the cycle of poverty."

Numerous studies have shown that abstinence-only programs are ineffective. A big story last year noted that Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health found that teens who pledge to abstain until marriage are just as likely to engage in premarital intercourse as their nonpledging peers. Only, the pledgers are less likely to use protection.

So after spending nearly $1.3 billion on abstinence-only education between fiscal years 2001 and 2009, the federal government will all but eliminate that funding under the new Obama budget. Meanwhile, it will pump $178 million into teen pregnancy prevention programs.

And on both sides of the debate, people will be watching the numbers. In 2006, teen birth rates increased in 26 states, including Colorado, hitting a national rate of 41.9 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19. That ended a decline that had lasted nearly 15 years.

stanley@csindy.com

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