BFPA supports moves to give teens access to medical help without parental consent
The Barbados Family Planning Association (BFPA) is throwing its full support behind efforts to rationalize the age of sexual consent with the age of access to services.
BFPA’s incoming executive director Juliette Bynoe- Sutherland said the idea that young people could be legally sexually active at age 16 and not be able to access treatment for sexually transmitted infections or prevent unplanned pregnancies until they are 18 was “deeply problematic”.
Her comments came against the backdrop of last weekend’s announcement by UNICEF Children’s Champion Faith Marshall-Harris that a proposal would soon go before the Freundel Stuart Cabinet to enact legislation giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to access medical help without parental consent.
In making the disclosure, the former magistrate said while there was nothing on the law books preventing doctors from treating the teens at this time, medical professionals had been following Common Law.
While lauding Marshall-Harris for bringing the matter into sharp focus, the BFPA head acknowledged that some parents were concerned that a change in policy would limit their awareness of the behaviour of those under their charge, and that a change in law may be seen by teens as encouraging sexual activity.
However, she lamented that many parents were not addressing issues of sexuality and were in denial over the fact that their children were sexually active, leaving many young people to pursue sexual expression secretly and to become exposed to risky activity, such as unprotected sex.
Based on local research, the BFPA executive warned that many teens were already sexually active by age 16 and that they also had sex involuntarily or through coercion by peers or older people.
“I therefore do not subscribe to the notion that sexually active young persons are a hopeless lot and should be consigned to the rubbish heap to take whatever they get from sexual activities. These are our young people and HIV, sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy can be prevented. They can legally have sex at 16, so let us give them the right to freely access services and treatment,” she said.
Bynoe-Sutherland further pointed out that based on discussions with members of the BFPA Youth Advocacy Movement a large number of teens did not feel they had parents who could help them navigate the issue of sexuality.
“The BFPA therefore said it would be preferable to have young people, without parental support, be able to access information and services from competent qualified professionals who could, in addition to providing advice and treatment, ensure that they were not being sexually exploited or abused.”
Bynoe-Sutherland also noted that young Barbadians were very tech savvy, so rather than have them source arbitrary information from the Internet or purchase medication online, “I would prefer them to seek their parents out as a first step”.
“But where they cannot, or fear recrimination, we want them to be able to seek a health or social work professional,” she said, noting that Common Law had long recognized the concept of the “mature minor” and the right of him or her to access medical services.
However, the BFPA official stressed that legislative and policy reform were needed to ensure that professionals could comfortably deliver services without the fear of having to defend their decision making in court.
“This fear has long stood as a barrier to service provision and our young people are often left without access.”
The BFPA said it welcomed the opportunity to engage in dialogue on the matter recognizing that there was a role for alternative approaches, such as abstinence and age appropriate information, to delay the entry of young people into sexual activity.
“The BFPA, however, will continue to stridently lobby on behalf of the often voiceless 16 and 17-years-old young persons, who are sexually active, to ensure that they have access to information and treatment and to remove any policy barriers to access,” Bynoe-Sutherland added.