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Beginning next year, young women in France between the ages of 15 and 18 will have access to birth control free of charge, and without parental notification. The French government says the new measure is intended to reduce pregnancies in this age group that result from a mixture of ignorance, taboo and lack of access to contraception.
One place where information is available on birth control, abortion and sexual abuse is a family planning clinic in a gritty neighborhood in the east of Paris.
On a recent day, a counselor talks with a handful of teenage girls in a sitting room. Clinic director Isabelle Louis says the young women who come to the clinic aren't necessarily poor; she says many hail from well-off families and live on the other side of Paris.
"It's not very easy for young women to go to see her family doctor and ask for contraception," Louis says. "A lot of them are afraid the doctor would tell the parents she came."
Starting in January, a law will protect these girls' anonymity at their family doctor's office, and the state will pick up the cost of the consultation and contraception. Under current rules, teenagers wanting absolute anonymity with a doctor have to pay for the visit in cash without submitting a claim to get the money back. And birth control is only partially reimbursed by the French state. Only clinics like this one are free.
French health officials say the new measure will help protect teenagers who are from low-income families, and from families where sexuality is a taboo subject.
Widespread Support For The Plan
Marie, a 17-year-old who doesn't want to give her last name, is visiting the clinic for the first time. She says she didn't know about the new law but thinks it's a good idea, and probably will see her family doctor next time — because she knows him and trusts him more, she says.
Marie is in her senior year at a very competitive Paris high school and says she cannot risk getting pregnant. But she comes from a very Catholic family, and says her parents wouldn't approve of her sexual activity.
"They don't want me to have sex with a lot of guys, because they think sex means love, too. So they want me to have a sexual activity with feelings," she says.
She says she actually feels the same.
"I do have sexual activity with my boyfriend because I love him," Marie says. "Yeah, I feel the same [as my parents]."
While birth control generated a vitriolic debate in the U.S. election campaign this year, the French government adopted the measure without a battle of any kind.
One Catholic organization did oppose it. CLER is a group that counsels young people about sexuality and relationships. A video on their website shows volunteers going into schools to talk to adolescents.
"We think reimbursing for contraception is a hygienist approach to sexuality, like the only thing that matters is health," says Jean Eude Tisson, president of CLER. "We think it goes beyond that."
Tisson says his group tries to explain that marriage brings the body and spirit together. He says the French government would do better to spend the money on more effective sex education in schools rather than on contraception.
Back at the clinic, 17-year-old Sabrina looks a bit nervous in the sitting room. It's her first time, too. But she didn't come for birth control.
"My father wants me to do a virginity test and get a virginity certificate. He says if I'm not a virgin he's gonna send me back to Morocco," she says.
Sabrina says she has not had sexual relations yet, but she doesn't think she'll wait until marriage either — despite her father's threat.
Counselors at the clinic say the new law may not solve every problem, but by giving young women like Sabrina other options for anonymous information, advice and free care, they believe it's a step in the right direction.