Texas Teens' Right to Reproductive and Sexual Healthcare

Words by Paloma Martinez

Edited by Abigail Vela

Of approximately 20 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) annually in the United States, half of cases occur among adolescents ages 15 to 24. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2021, Texas had a teen birth rate of 20.3 births per 1,000 females 15-19 years of age, becoming one of the top states with a high number of teen pregnancies. These alarming statistics beg the question: Why are we not advocating more for teens to have access to resources, and education, and provide a support system for them to make educated choices regarding their sexual health, not to feel or be shamed for having sex? For there to be actual and meaningful change, one must fully understand the harsh reality teens in Texas, especially here at home in the Rio Grande Valley, face in simply gaining autonomy over their bodies.

Nine colorful wrapped up condoms neatly displayed together on a flat surface.
Condoms are the more popular form of contraceptives. According to the CDC, 89.7% had used a condom or a primary contraceptive during the last sexual intercourse. Photo courtesy of Paloma Martinez.

Texas State Board of Education V. The Children

The Texas State Board of Education recently updated its stance on sexual health taught at the elementary and middle school levels. This new update, which took effect last fall, will include information on STIs and birth control. In theory, this is a big win for advocates for sexual health being a mandate for all students. But, it is an opt-in-only class, and abstinence is still being promoted while many important subjects, such as consent and gender identity, are not even taught. In addition, while it is still too early to see if most parents opt for their child, a 2012 Texas State University study may indicate otherwise

 

In 2011, 29-year-old Marlee Olivarez, an Assistant Director of Medical Education, became pregnant at 17. Marlee went to school in Edinburg, which she describes as conservative, and was taught general sex education by a coach. “I was scared to tell my parents. Edinburg is a conservative area. My parents went  to church, but I didn’t, and I felt like I couldn’t show my face anymore.” Marlee’s sentiments seem to mirror what most teens who find out they are pregnant feel at the time – that they don’t know who to go or talk to. “Communication and involvement start at the home,” states Marlee. “When your kids know and understand that they can go and talk to you about certain things, it opens the doors to endless possibilities and prevents them from falling into these kinds of situations. I didn’t have that growing up as my parents were divorced, but now as a parent, it’s something I try to instill in my children – especially because I lived it.” 

Morning After Pill V. Birth Control (and other forms of contraceptives)

Plan B, or the “morning after pill,” is for a lot of folks, “Plan A.” Considering its rise in popularity, there are still many teens who aren’t aware that it is available over the counter, and they don’t necessarily have to ask an employee or pharmacist for assistance. But for most teens, simply going into their local drug store, such as H-E-B, is not the ideal choice.  

 

22-year-old Intersectional Feminist Student Organization (IFSO) at UTRGV co-founder Sol Garcia explains, “There is still that fear for a young person when they need to get Plan B of running into someone they know. Plan B is also expensive.” Being expensive and other factors, such as weight, may hinder a teen’s ability to decide to get plan B.

Sol explains a “lack of education about what is going on in the legislature regarding  their bodies.” Emergency contraceptives are still legal even with the recent abortion bans in Texas. Still, they could be very well challenged in the courts, which is why it is imperative that high schools across the RGV ensure that teens have access to and are being educated on the ever-changing policies on contraceptives and abortions.

Three boxes of contraceptive Plan B pills neatly displayed on a flat surface.
Plan B, or the morning after Pill, as shown here, is Plan A for most teens who can get access to it. Photo courtesy of Paloma Martinez.

“We were split into boys and girls,” Sol recalls when she was at a local middle school funded by taxpayers, and a speaker was brought to the school to promote abstinence. The  speaker was impressing them with a pro-abstinence speech, asking them, “Would you want a boyfriend who has touched the breasts of ten other girls?” Sol explains, “Looking back at it was a horrible experience. You should not be teaching 14-year-olds that abstinence is the way to go. Because we know that is not the reality. Abstinence is not the only form of birth control. We should be teaching all forms of birth control.” 

 

The many birth control options that are still legal are vast and vary from person to person. Some more known ones include internal condoms, dental dams, Intrauterine Devices (IUDs) implants, and birth control daily pills. We must improve access and education for teens to allow them autonomy in making decisions regarding their sexual health. 

An illustration of a side profile of a pregnant woman wearing orange over a blue background of Texas.
Illustration by Ruby Delgado.

What Securing Birth Control and Abortions Looks Like for Teens

Since the overturning of Roe V. Wade, many conservative states, such as Texas, have cracked down on folks’ ability to have autonomy over their sexual health—especially teens. In December 2022, Federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled that teens seeking birth control through the federally funded Title X clinics cannot get birth control without their parent’s consent. Title X clinics are meant to provide reproductive healthcare services to low-income and uninsured people. This ruling effectively impacts many folks within the Rio Grande Valley who are already at a disproportionate disadvantage compared to the rest of the state and nation. Most teens living in the RGV do not have access to reliable transportation or the financial means to visit their local Title X clinic. There are about 16 Title X clinics in the RGV, and most are based in the more populated cities leaving smaller cities and colonias out of the conversation.

 

Now, let’s say a teen in the RGV decided that the best option for them at the time is to seek an abortion. With the current political climate, it is almost impossible, essentially leaving them with no choice but to continue the pregnancy or travel outside of Texas to another state where abortion is still legal; For many teens in the RGV, that is not even an option due financial means or inability to travel hundreds of miles away. That aside, here is where it gets tricky: Most states still require that a teen under 18 still get parental consent to have an abortion unless they obtain a judicial pass. A judicial bypass for an abortion is an order from a judge that allows a young person to get an abortion without the notification or consent of their parents. Most teens do not feel confident enough to reach out to their parents for various reasons, whether due to unsafe housing conditions or violent parents.  

 

Although it looks grim for RGV teens in terms of securing birth control or abortion, several organizations are fighting daily for RGV folks to have complete autonomy over their bodies and secure a future with reproductive justice and healthcare. Organizations like Frontera Fund, South Texans for Reproductive Justice (STRJ), Jane’s Due Process, and IFSO are all wonderful organizations that teens in the RGV can reach out to confidentially.  

A pink infographic with text that reads “Young People Need To Know This About Sex” and nine icons with positive affirmations written throughout.
Jane’s Due Process helps young people in Texas navigate parental consent laws and abortion bans to confidentially access abortion and birth control. Photo courtesy of Jane’s Due Process.

What A Stigma Free, Equitable Future for Teens Looks Like

By providing resources and education, especially for those who identify as LGBTQIA+, we allow teens to step into their sexual independence and liberation without fear of persecution. “Sex is a good thing. Sex is pleasurable. We should not shame teens for having sex.” states Sol. 

 

While sexual health education is imperative in teaching teens the importance of practicing safe and consensual sex, schools must go further and have STD and HIV testing for school-aged students. If we are teaching them, but there is no actual follow-up, it does not reinforce the importance of being safe. 

 

Teens of today, or Gen-Z, are often criticized and mocked for being teens. Although the language may have changed, it is apparent that the culture surrounding teens having sex has not. Now, more than ever before, teens have become more involved and instrumental in changing their communities for the better, proving that they are more than capable of accomplishing so much more than they are given credit for. 

 

We shouldn’t hold back teens; we should be propelling them forward by providing them accessible and affordable access to birth control and other contraceptives, educating them in a way that fosters an environment where they feel safe and confident to ask questions or open up, and having a system that is easy to navigate with language that is clear for them to understand while not having their bodies up for discussion.

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