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Health Matters

The Birds and the Bees Come to Wood Buffalo

February 23rd, 2014

By Jordan Hiltunen

If English is your first language, you’ve probably heard about “the birds and the bees,” a euphemism that more associate with an awkward parenting moment than with sound biological metaphors. Many Germans, in comparison, grew up with the book Wo kommst du her? (Where do you come from?) which unabashedly depicts nude cartoon characters preparing for intimacy, pregnancy, and birth.

Spoiler alert: different cultures have different attitudes towards sexual education. Many communities share a consensus of values and have the luxury of observing this kind of dramatic cultural relativism from afar. Not Fort McMurray.

Smash a humble British hamlet and a bohemian Berlin block together, and you’ll have something akin to our community; we’re cultural strangers doing our best to happily co-exist. We realize, though, that some ideas just don’t mesh; moral tenets like “sex is sacred and belongs to marriage” and “sex is casual and has no permanent meaning” cannot be reconciled. Accordingly, we enroll our children in certain schools and involve ourselves in certain social groups to keep our families immersed in the ideas that we hold dear; we tolerate each other’s differences in perspective and we mostly keep to ourselves when it comes to delicate issues. Our cultural harmony holds together remarkably well.

The realities of Public Health, however, do not allow for relativism or differences in perspective: the unfortunate truth is that youth in our community are vulnerable and have higher sexually-transmitted infection rates than the Alberta average[i]. For this reason, the Wood Buffalo Primary Care Network is launching a Teen Sexual Health Clinic in Fort McMurray. We will be offering youth free and confidential access to contraception, sexual health education, STI testing, and abortion and adoption resources.

We are launching this clinic not because we wish to wade into moral disputes or to upset our multicultural balance, but because it is our charge as healthcare providers to minimize harm and to keep our community healthy. Crucially, we are neither pro-sex nor pro-abstinence; we are pro-health.

The WBPCN is actually comprised of healthcare professionals of many faiths and creeds, including Catholics, Muslims, and Atheists; despite this diversity, we work as one to support the mission of the Teen Sexual Health Clinic, not because our individual beliefs endorse it, but because this proactive harm reduction approach has been proven to be the most effective public health policy concerning the sexual health of youth[ii]. It reduces the incidence rate of unwanted pregnancies and STIs. It keeps youth healthy.

In our private lives, we too grapple with the enormity of raising our children to lead ethical, responsible sexual lives. These are conversations that every parent is entitled to have with their child, regardless of whether they identify more with the position of a conservative Briton or that of a liberal Berliner*. Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of human life; it has physical, psychological, spiritual, social, and cultural dimensions and as such it absolutely belongs to the domain of the family[iii]. As parents, you know first-hand that the temptations of a nascent sexuality and the social pressures of school can give rise to a wide range of behaviors in youth as they strive towards the development of a personal identity; it will always remain the responsibility of the family to address these things.

Our only goal in launching the Teen Sexual Health Clinic is to ensure that when you sit your kids down for further chats about ducks and pollen or German cartoon books, they still have their health intact, regardless of the decisions they’ve made. If there is one thing that our diverse community can rally behind, it’s protecting the wellbeing of our youth. The existence of this clinic – while disagreeable to some – is an essential part of making that happen.

Jordan Hiltunen is Communications & Program Coordinator for the Wood Buffalo Primary Care Network. Visit wbpcn.ca for more information.

*we cheekily play with these woefully inaccurate stereotypes, not to make definitive statements about the personalities of either country, but to illustrate differences of opinion.

[1] http://www.ahw.gov.ab.ca/IHDA_Retrieval/

[1] Underhill K, Operario D, Montgomery P. Abstinence-only programs for HIV infection prevention in high-income countries. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD005421. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005421.pub2.

[1] UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), International Guidelines on Sexuality Education: An evidence informed approach to effective sex, relationships and HIV/STI education, June 2009, ED-2009/WS/36 (CLD 1983.9), available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a69b8902.html [accessed 9 January 2014]

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