Abstinence-only education fails to prepare students

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According to a Jan. 26 article in The New York Times, the rate of teenage pregnancy is increasing after a long decline. Not only is the rate of teenage pregnancy increasing rapidly, but the rate of teenage abortions is as well.

But don’t take that as a reflection primarily upon the American teenage public, but rather as a reflection upon the poor state of the national sexual education system, which merits immediate reform.

After over a decade of decreasing teenage pregnancy rates, the rate of incidence of teenage births, abortions, and miscarriages is up between 2005 and 2006 — a period coinciding with extremely high levels of funding going toward abstinence-only education. That is, according to the same New York Times article, $150 million that is being spent annually on sexual education that encourages abstinence until marriage — and abstains from all discussion of realistic contraceptive measures.

I will not attempt to synthesize here the immensely complicated debate over sexual education in public schools nationwide. Further trivializing the argument by reducing it to a simple rehash of the debate is unlikely to effect any change in the public mentality. Suffice it to say that abstinence-only education is a heavy contender in the discussion over what is forcing the teenage pregnancy rate to skyrocket.

This is no longer an issue of morality. This issue is one of solving a problem: figuring out the best way to eliminate a contemporary problem plaguing our nation, and one that is bound to rise unless we start being realistic — and fast.

To reduce the rate of teenage births, abortions, and miscarriages, we must move past the debate over whether teenagers in public high schools should or should not learn about contraception as a moral issue. Public education, while it must have a foundation in what is right and wrong for the youngest generation of our nation, should not be based in antiquated ideas about morality that do not fit with the contemporary issues facing these teenagers.

In this vein, we must face the issue of a rising rate of teenage pregnancy head-on, and recognize that there are real steps that can be taken to ensure that young women never have to face the trauma of an unplanned pregnancy.

The most concrete step that can be taken toward reducing the number of births, abortions, and miscarriages by teenagers is to reduce funding specifically directed toward abstinence-only education. These sexual education programs limit teenagers’ exposure to available knowledge about different methods of contraception — which can include total abstention. Moreover, funding must be reallocated such that it is used to promote education and knowledge about all working and reasonable forms of contraception.

What tends to happen in discussions about abortion and unplanned pregnancies, especially with regard to teenagers, is a simplistic and derogatory stereotyping of the young women affected by these situations. That is, it is easy to think that all teenagers facing unplanned pregnancies are nothing more than promiscuous, untamable children, therefore unworthy of education. There is a pervading thought underlying a lack of interest in educating the young women seemingly more prone to facing unplanned pregnancies: “*Will it even help?*”

But it will. Not all teenage women who have to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, abortion, or miscarriage are “helplessly” immoral or wanton. These young women are not unapproachable or foreign; they’re teenagers. In fact, no matter how these young women identify themselves — black or white, rich or poor, prep or punk — they deserve to discuss the realities of their sexuality, their potential consequences, and how they can protect themselves and their partners.

I do not mean to imply that I believe every unplanned pregnancy could have been prevented had some of these individuals been taught about safe sex practices in school rather than to abstain from sex until marriage. Mistakes will be made — to a degree, that is inevitable. I spoke with a woman who used to perform medical (pill) abortions for Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh. Speaking under the condition of anonymity out of respect for the work done at Planned Parenthood and for the young women who have sought out its services, she told me about several teenagers who had three or more medical abortions in under a year and a half.

It might be easy to write off these young women’s situations as potential outliers, or to think that the women are incapable of learning after experiencing the physical and emotion pain of an abortion. But the essence of the heartbreaking situation is this: These young women have not been properly educated about how to be sexual in a world where they’ve been taught they should be abstaining from sex. This has to change.

Moreover, educating teenagers does not absolve them of responsibility. An acknowledgment of young men and women’s right to learn about how to protect their bodies and look out for their own futures is an acknowledgment of their responsibility to use that knowledge wisely. Teaching high school students about how to use condoms and where to purchase them is not condoning promiscuity — it’s recognizing that we have a responsibility to ourselves as human beings and to younger generations as the future of our nation.