With thousands of teen pregnancies every year and shows on television like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, it’s undeniable that we could be serving our teens better. For years, our kids have received inflexible abstinence-only education. They receive little- if any- information about safe sex practices. The proponents of abstinence-only education are often religious parents and leaders. While their beliefs about sex education are intricately connected to their overall belief systems, it’s time to face the facts: abstinence-only education simply doesn’t work. Thousands of American teens become pregnant every year- more than ever, in fact. Research done into teen pregnancy rates between 2002 and 2005 showed that the United States had a teen pregnancy rate of 72.2%. That number is far and away higher than any country in Western Europe. The United Kingdom comes in second with 41.3%, and every other country in the area features substantially lower numbers. The countries with the lowest teen pregnancy rates don’t pursue abstinence only education- they provide their kids access to comprehensive safe-sex information that allows them to make informed decisions when it comes to their sex lives.
When students are not talking to their parents about sex at home (and frequently, they are not), they need to get that information somewhere else. This is particularly important for kids who grow up in conservative homes. Sex education that focuses on safe-sex is valuable for all teens, but particularly for students who won’t receive that information at home. Almost every study on the question has shown that when kids receive comprehensive sex education, they have safer sex and teen pregnancy rates drop considerably. Somewhere between 80 and 85% of parents in the United States want to see comprehensive sex education in schools- an extremely vocal minority is responsible for the push to keep abstinence only education on the forefront of discussions about sex. In the status quo, 86% of public school districts approach sexual education with an abstinence only education focus, though over 90% of teachers in those same schools believe that comprehensive sexual education is the better strategy.
Because school districts receive federal funds, the federal government can place limits on what schools can and cannot teach. Education is fundamentally a state’s issue and as such, state governments can refuse federal restrictions. Doing so, however, requires that they miss out on what can be pretty substantial funding. We shouldn’t place our schools in a position where they’re forced to refuse thousands of dollars that could enhance the student experience simply because an extremely small (though persistently vocal) portion of the community wants to continue to choose blind belief over scientific and empirical fact. Nobody who looks at the numbers can deny that abstinence only education facilitates a culture in which teen pregnancy is not only common, but glorified. Though the choice to have a child at any age should belong to a woman free of external pressure, it is undeniable that thousands of young women become pregnant for one simple reason: they don’t have access to the information or resources they need to make informed decisions about their sex lives.
There is no magic wand that we can wave to instantly resolve problems with our educational system- it will take a multi-faceted approach to address the root cause of the US’s incredibly high teen pregnancy numbers. Steps we can (and should) take include:
Abolishing statutes that prohibit comprehensive sex education or require abstinence-only education
Abolishing federal foreign aid programs that fund abstinence-only education in countries like Uganda, where little information about safe sex abides and they rely on the “ABC” program (Abstinence, Be Faithful, and use Condoms Consistently and Correctly)
Offer incentives for state school systems to teach comprehensive sex education instead of abstinence-only education
Create federal programs to teach kids about safe sex and provide resources for students- things like condoms, STD tests, and open advocates for safe sex are all tools that women should have access to when they become sexually active.
Everyone wants to see teen pregnancy rates drop- but it’s going to take a lot of work. We can’t rely on the federal government to make these changes unprompted. Instead, solving this problem will require work on the part of the parents and teachers responsible for kids as well involvement from local and federal governmental organizations and activist organizations.