When I was 16 years old and in high school, I was like a lot of teens. I was not a child and I wasn't quite an adult. I was struggling to assert my autonomy. Since I was dating a boy, I wanted birth control "just in case."
Some of my friends were sexually active. I felt like my boyfriend and I might go down that same path. I wasn't really sure that I wanted to "go all the way." But I felt some pressure to do it, mostly because my friends were doing it and it seemed like a grown-up thing to do.
I didn't feel comfortable going to my parents. Many teens don't want to talk to their parents about sex. They know where their parents stand on the issue. ("Don't do it!") So, why bother having a discussion? Besides, it can be embarrassing. A lot of my friends felt the same way.
I wanted to make my own decision. Since I didn't want my parents to be involved, I didn't want to go to my family doctor to get birth control. One day after school, a friend and I went to our local Planned Parenthood health center. As soon as I walked through the door, I felt like I was in a place that was safe and judgment-free.
Those who oppose women's health want you to think that women's health centers are scary places. That was not my experience — and it's not true. After I signed in, I was shown to a private room to talk with a health educator. She gave me the birth control I wanted. But she also gave me the information I needed to make a responsible decision about when I would be ready to have sex.
Based upon my conversation with her, I decided that I was not ready. I chose to wait. By the time I was ready, I was out of high school and legally an adult. I was much more comfortable with myself. My first time was the right time for me; and it was a positive, healthy experience.
Unfortunately, most of my high school friends didn't fare as well. Two of them got pregnant; two others contracted sexually transmitted infections — all before their 18th birthdays. All of them said that their first time wasn't so great. All of them paid an emotional and physical price because they weren't really ready.
I was headed down that same road. I credit Planned Parenthood for giving me the tools — both education and birth control — I needed to make responsible decisions about my sexual health. Because they treated me with respect, I was able to walk away ready to use those tools and to wait to become sexually active when I was ready. Thanks to my health educator, I didn't feel like I needed to follow the crowd or be pressured by anyone.
Planned Parenthood wasn't just there for me when I was in high school. Once I turned 18, I no longer had health insurance — because I was a student and I had jobs that didn't offer insurance coverage. During that period of my life, Planned Parenthood was my primary care provider. I not only got my birth control there, I also got my annual well-woman exam, complete with all of the health screenings I needed. Planned Parenthood — both then and today — is an affordable option for uninsured women, a safe, judgment-free place to get women's health care services.
My life might have turned out very differently. I trusted Planned Parenthood — and because I did, I've stayed healthy. I've graduated from college and am now working on my master's of public health because I want to be there for teens and women of all ages when they need affordable, quality health care. The lesson from my story is that we must listen to women. We must trust women. We must give women access to the health care and education we need so we can make responsible choices.
I am frustrated by and angry at Florida legislators who are trying to pass laws that will make it harder for women to get the health care we need. I'm frustrated because they make no sense. And I am angry because they are hurting women's health with their bad policies.
Let's stop attacking women's rights and start trusting women, listening to women, and supporting women's health.
Natalie Rella, who is from Gainesville, is a graduate student at USF and a Planned Parenthood volunteer.