Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rise in teen pregnancy suggests flaws in sexual education policy

Teen pregnancy is rising in the U.S. after a decade-long decline, according to brand new data published by the Guttmacher Institute. This slow in decline and subsequent change in direction correlates with the adoption of the Title V abstinence-only education law from 1998-2009, which attached federal dollars for education to a strictly defined abstinence-until-marriage sexual education. While the classic statistical imperative charges that we not infer causation from correlation, it is difficult to ignore the implications of a federal law stating that sexual education programs who hope to receive federal funding must be "abstinence-only programs [that] have as their 'exclusive purpose' promoting abstinence outside of marriage" and that such "programs may not in any way advocate contraceptive use or discuss contraceptive methods except to emphasize their failure rates." The government financially rewards states that deny teenagers the tools to protect themselves adequately. This not only serves to validate such states' sex education agendas, but it also makes it extremely difficult for the state to change its policies. While at one time or another 49 out of 50 states accepted funds from Title V, half the states ceased participation. State Health Commissioner Dr. Richard F. Daines is cited on SIECUS stating his reasoning for New York's withdrawal from the program: “The Bush administration’s abstinence-only program is an example of a failed national health care policy directive… [the policy was] …based on ideology rather than on sound scientific-based evidence that must be the cornerstone of good public healthc are policy.”

The findings published by the Guttmacher Institute reveal differences in sex education policy indeed indicating that abstinence-based policies are not as functional as the writers of Title V hoped. The states with the highest teen pregnancy rates overall (New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi) are in the South and Southwest, and the states with the lowest (New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Minnesota) are in New England and the north Midwest. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), none of the states at the bottom require any sexual education at all. When schools in those states do choose to include education, state policy either follows the guidelines in Title V (only MS, currently) or stresses abstinence as much preferred over other sexual education (TX, AZ). These states also incorporate an opt-out policy, which allows parents to choose to exempt their children from sex education (NM), or an opt-in policy are required to give consent for the child to receive such education - making no sex education the default (NV). Conversely, the states with the lowest rates also have sexual education policies that significantly incorporate safer sex education and require all schools and students to participate.

These data also have startling implications for social justice. It seems like a cruel joke that those states which tend towards abstinence-centric sex education are also some of the poorest states in the nation whose public education systems are most in need of funding. There's nothing like putting strings on federal money to control the activities of poorly-funded education systems. Additionally, in the states with the highest rates, minority teens are taking a particularly hard hit. Those states report statistics (which generally reflect national averages) indicating that African American and Hispanic teenagers have significantly higher rates of teen pregnancy than white teens. In Maine, by contrast, which has one of the most comprehensive state mandated sex education programs in the country, the gap is almost nonexistent. Efforts to promote social and reproductive justice in the sex education and teen pregnancy arena would do well to take a closer look at sexual education as practiced in Maine's public schools. Again, causation cannot follow directly from correlation; but you have to start somewhere.

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