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SALT LAKE CITY — Raising children is no easy task, and a group of local researchers wants to help women make the choice of becoming a mother more intentional.

The HER Salt Lake initiative, based at the University of Utah, intends to counsel at least 7,000 women and give them access to the birth control method they choose, free of charge.

"I have a deep belief that in order for people to have the healthiest families they can, women need access to all methods of contraception that are available," said Dr. David Turok, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Salt Lake City and founder of the project. "People need to be able to control their fertility and have babies if and when they want to."

Turok points to national statistics that show more than half of all pregnancies are unintended. In Utah, it is lower, but hovers around 36 percent, or about 24,000 babies born each year that are unplanned, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Pregnancy Risk Assessment and Monitoring System.

The issue is the majority of the chldren are born to women with limited financial means, minorities, and women with less than a college degree.

Turok said it's a health disparity not unlike others that plague Americans in lower socioeconomic classes.

"In this community, for a long time it has been difficult for women to access all methods of contraception," he said, adding that the most effective methods — intrauterine devices, or IUDs, and hormonal implants that are least likely to result in unplanned pregnancies — are the most difficult to access.

The HER Salt Lake program aims to not only eliminate the cost barrier for women, but also inform them and the public about the array of options available. Researchers behind the initiative will also track women who are willing to participate in short surveys over the next three years to demonstrate the need.

Project facilitator Kyl Myers, a sociologist at the University of Utah, said researchers are already seeing a difference.

"It's huge," Turok said.

"As soon as we removed the cost, more women were choosing IUDs and implants, which are the most effective methods but also have the most expensive upfront cost," Myers added. "We are seeing that it really was the cost that was keeping women from getting the type of contraceptive method they really want."

It's not the first time research has intervened in unplanned pregnancies, but all studies seem to point to the same socially acceptable result — a "dramatic reduction in the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions," Turok said.

Getting family planning right and doing it at the right time, he said, is important for everyone.

"This is a place where people can agree," Turok said. "Family planning is critical for the health of moms and babies. Family planning is critical for the stability of families. Family planning saves lots of money."

For every $1 spent on family planning, the Guttmacher Institute estimates Utah will save $7.09.

With HER Salt Lake giving 7,000 women access to the birth control they choose, Guttmacher calculates the initiative will prevent 870 unplanned births and 600 abortions. It also estimates a cost savings of more than $8.5 million.

It will also allow women to complete academic goals, develop opportunities to advance economically and advance in other relationships, be it with their partner or other children.

"It's incredible that we have this technology," Myers said. "When women have access to birth control, they're able to time their initiation into parenthood, and they're able to space their kids, and we're seeing limitless positive impacts of that."

The program, which has already provided access to birth control to more than 3,000 Utah women, is funded entirely by donations from local supporters, including the Intermountain Healthcare Foundation.

A nonprofit pharmaceutical company also donated at least 3,000 IUD and implant devices, each of which could run from about $325 to $800, not including medical care.

Turok's daily work in community health centers has proven that access to more effective contraceptive methods and those less prone to user errors would not be taken for granted. He said even large families in Utah are planned.

The most important part of the program, Turok said, is that it's increasing the awareness about contraceptive options.

The HER Salt Lake initiative includes patient counseling, as well as no-cost access to various reversible birth control methods, and ongoing support for women who need it.

Myers said there is no cap on the number of women the program will support, but the program will come to an end in March.

"We know this is something necessary and wanted in our community," she said. "And a lot of people don't know about these methods."

Contraceptives, including birth control pills, patches, injections, IUDs and implants, as well as counseling, are provided through a partnership with Planned Parenthood clinics in Salt Lake County. Women can drop in or make an appointment at one of three clinics in West Valley City, South Jordan or downtown to discuss their options.

For more information, visit www.hersaltlake.org.

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