Teenagers, Birth Control, and the Eternal Wisdom of Donna Martin

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article examining the city’s high abortion rate: 41 percent of all pregnancies in New York City end in abortion. Several possible explanations were mentioned, including the absence of mandatory sex education in the city’s public schools and young people’s lack of knowledge about where to get affordable birth control.

The focus on teenagers was interesting, particularly in light of an overall decrease in the number of teenage parents. In New York, the number of teenagers having children has fallen by almost 40 percent since 1996; the number of abortions has decreased by more than 16 percent. These statistics reflect national trends; according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the teen birth rate declined by 6% in 2009 and is now at a “record low.”

It sounds like New York City is already on track to providing quality, fact-based sex education to its public school students. Condoms are available in the health offices of each high school, and the city health department offers a guide to clinics where teens can get affordable medical care and contraception. Of course, just because teens have the ability to get contraception doesn’t mean they’ll actually use it – something that is true in every age group – but it’s still a positive and realistic step for the city to take.

Not everyone sees it that way, unfortunately. Leslie Díaz, the wife of New York State Senator Rubén Díaz, claimed that handing out condoms to teenagers promotes promiscuity – even though she also supports decreasing the number of abortions. So, how exactly will that happen by demonizing contraception? OK, that’s a rhetorical question – and anyway, a better response can be found from the always-relevant Donna Martin, who offers these timeless words on the importance of making condoms available to teens:

“It’s like if you have a swimming pool in your backyard, you can tell your children not to go in it, you can even build a fence around it, but if you know that they’re going to find a way in to that water, don’t you think you ought to teach those kids how to swim?”

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.


  1. Love the Donna Martin quote–what a perfect analogy!

  2. I am memorizing that quote for the next time I get in an argument about contraception.

  3. Very nice! I seem to recall Donna’s mother being especially not good at staying out of the swimming pool :)

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