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Public Health Issues and the Age of Consent


There is a common misconception today that a human becomes an adult at the age of 18.  This misconception contributes towards the general attitudes and opinions that, for example, the age of 16 for sexual consent, as well as teens being sentenced to death; are warranted, as these children are close to being adults and therefore are aware enough of the consequences of their choices.  


The legal definition of the word adult only adds to the confusion: “The age of majority is the legally defined age at which a person is considered to be an adult, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities of adulthood…18 in most states.”  It is important to pay attention to the word “considered.”  The word considered is not a synonym for the word “is.”  Depending on which dictionary one uses, the word “considered” basically means that someone gave something a great deal of thought and then made a decision.  That being the case, it would be more accurate to say that the legal definition of an 18-year-old is someone who will be treated as if they were an adult.

  

The belief that an 18-year-old is an adult is a Public Health issue, mainly because of the behaviors it invokes in both adolescents and adults.  For example, today there are approximately 70 children between the ages of 11 and 14 in prison for the rest of their lives. Quite possibly, the adults who decided that these children should be charged and sentenced as adults, believed that these children were fully capable of understanding on an adult level, the true nature of their offenses (Dahl, 2003).  However, is this possible, since the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex; the part that handles logic and reason?  This part of the brain does not complete development until somewhere between the ages of 22-29 (Sturman, 2012). Additionally, in 1992, it was discovered that most children who committed violent crimes and were sentenced to death, either had low IQ, psychological disorders, were abused, and/or had histories of substance abuse (Robinson, 1992) indicating that they may have been temporarily or permanently emotionally and or psychologically impaired.


Another Public Health issue sparked by the misconception of the age of adulthood is the age of sexual consent. Although we have come a long way since 1895, there is still much progress necessary regarding the age of sexual consent in the United States.  According to the New York Times, in 1895, “In four states, the age of consent is fixed shockingly at the low age of ten…except in Delaware, where the original statute pertaining to the crime of rape is still unrepealed*, fixing the age at seven.  Today, the age of sexual consent in the United States ranges from 16-18. Until recently, in the state of Georgia, the age was 14.  Many third world countries in Africa have raised the age of consent to 18.  In Tunisia, the age of consent is 20. Because the Center for Disease Control and Prevention describes an adolescent as being between the ages of 10-24, and also states that women who engage in sex before age 25 are at the highest risk for developing cervical cancer as a result of HPV, it would not be asking too much of the state of Georgia and every other state, to request that the age of consent be raised to 25.


In 1995, the state government of Georgia had the opportunity to join the ranks of states such as California, Arizona, Idaho, and Delaware, and raise the age of consent to 18.  Unfortunately, this did not happen.  However, the age of consent was raised from 14 to 16.  Although this was progress, it was not nearly enough.  This is because when we fully understand that a 24-year-old is still an adolescent, we also realize that although age 16 is a bit better than 10, the age of consent in Georgia in 1880, it is still far too low.  This becomes especially evident when we consider that females who have sex before the age of 25 are at the highest risk for developing cervical cancer later in life; that thousands of women die from this disease every year, and several thousands more are treated for it.


In order to rectify this situation, this issue needs to come before the Georgia General Assembly for review.  This topic should be of personal interest to every parent, both mothers and fathers. Teaching our children early, that although the law will treat them like adults when they turn 18, they are not yet adults, but are still growing and developing in important ways.  Being aware of this might deter them a little, from the desire to involve themselves in life-altering behaviors while still in their teens.  Arming fully grown adults with this information could possibly also get, and keep wayward children off death row as well.

  


References


Age of Majority Law & Legal Definition.  Retrieved from:  http://definitions.uslegal.com/a/age-of-majority/

Dahl R.E. (2003).  Beyond Raging Hormones:  The Tinderbox in the Teenage Brain.  Cerebrum:   The Dana Forum on Brain Science

Immunization of Adolescents:  Recommendations And Reports. U.S. Department of Healthand Human Services. MMWR 1996, 45:(RR13).

Sturman, D, Moghaddam, B. (2012), Striatum processes reward differently in adolescents versus adults.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Purity Congress Meets.  A Great Gathering in Moral Work in the City of Baltimore.  Aims and Objects of the Movement Determined to Prevent State Regulation of Vice and to Resuce Fallen Men and Fallen Women.  The New York Times.  Retrieved July 3, 2012 from http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9B01EEDC113AE533A25756C1A9669D94649ED7CF

Robinson, DA (1992).  Patterns of Mitigating Factors in Juvenile Death Penalty Cases, 3 Criminal Law Bulletin 28

Sturman, D, Moghaddam, B. (2012), Striatum processes reward differently in adolescents versus adults.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


By Donna R. Turner, MPH, CHES

The Age of Consent | VirtualVillageMom

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