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Earlier age for morning-after contraceptive pill pits old vs. new

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 8:06 p.m.

Teens can't drink alcohol or gamble in casinos. They have to turn 18 to smoke cigarettes, buy lottery tickets, vote or join the military.

A 16-year-old can't drive with friends in the car. A 13-year-old can hunt, but only if a parent signs his or her hunting license.

While a debate rages over whether girls of any age should be allowed to walk into a pharmacy and buy the morning-after contraceptive pill without a prescription, age-based laws restrict many other areas of teen life.

“I think they cause more problems than they solve,” said Brianne McKain, 17, of the South Side.

Many things are off limits to teenagers just because of their age. Some age restrictions appear set in stone, milestones of growing up. Others change and shift with the times.

The federal Food and Drug Administration recently lowered the age to buy the morning-after contraception without a prescription to 15, sparking a new debate in the arena of age restrictions. A Brooklyn federal judge later removed all age restrictions to the pill in a ruling that has drawn the ire of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. The federal government filed a last-second appeal on Monday to block the unrestricted sale of the pill.

“You never need to be a certain age to be sexually active,” said Jayne May-Stein, 17, of Squirrel Hill.

Her friend, Desmond Biggs, 18, of Wilkinsburg, noted teens do not need to show IDs to buy condoms.

President Obama approved the FDA's move. Planned Parenthood has praised it, claiming there is no medical reason why the pill shouldn't be widely available.

But Amy Scheuring, executive director of the Women's Choice Network, which runs clinics in Oakland, North Side, Monroeville and Wexford, noted that teens often cannot physiologically or mentally handle pregnancy and sex.

Abstinence education has worked to lower the teen pregnancy rate and the number of teenagers who are sexually active, Scheuring said.

Teen mothers in Allegheny County gave birth to 882 babies in 2010, according to state health statistics. In 2000, teen mothers in Allegheny County gave birth to 1,199 babies.

“It's going in the wrong direction,” she said of the FDA's decision. “For the last 20 years, teen sexual activity has actually been going down in that age group. We really believe that is a positive change.”

Drinking, smoking, voting and other age-restrictions have been on the books for decades. State and federal laws set the restrictions. Parents, police, school officials and other adults struggle to enforce them.

“There's a common belief that maturity comes along with age,” said Stacie Sebastian, director of professional services at the Outreach Teen and Family Center in Mt. Lebanon. “When someone hits 18, 19, 20, they look at the world a little different.”

Many teenagers do not let state law stand between their bodies and tattoos or piercings, or at least they try not to let it.

Vince Stein, a manager at Inka Dinka Doo, a tattoo and piercing shop in Lawrenceville, said underage teenagers try all the time to con their way into a tattoo or a piercing. Without their parents, it is illegal, and Stein turns them away.

Veronica Ray, owner of South Side Tattoo and Body Piercings on East Carson Street, said she does not tattoo anyone younger than 16, whether or not they come with their parents. State law prohibits teens younger than 18 from getting a tattoo without their parents' permission.

Kelly Donohue, a receptionist at the shop, cautions teens about tattoos and piercings that could keep them from jobs in the future — and about tattoos they may regret later, like the name of a boyfriend or girlfriend.

“Even at the age of 18, they're not making good decisions,” Ray said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or

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