Friday, February 5, 2010

The Politics of Sex Ed

Abstinence only. True love waits. Teen pregnancy on the rise.

The news has been filled with catchphrases and headlines, but what's the truth?

Here's a start. A recent Guttmacher Institute study found that, for the first time in over a decade, teen pregnancy rates rose in 2006 (the most recent data available). According to the report, "this decline started to stall out in the early 2000s, at the same time that sex education programs aimed exclusively at promoting abstinence—and prohibited by law from discussing the benefits of contraception—became increasingly widespread and teens’ use of contraceptives declined."

So are we seeing the results of a decade of neglect and moralizing, or simply a blip in the statistics?

"It is too soon to tell whether the increase in the teen pregnancy rate between 2005 and 2006 is a short term fluctuation, a more lasting stabilization or the beginning of a significant new trend, any of which would be of great concern," says Lawrence Finer, Guttmacher’s director of domestic research. “Either way, it is clearly time to redouble our efforts to make sure our young people have the information, interpersonal skills and health services they need to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to become sexually healthy adults.

On the same day the Guttmacher report was released, an even more surprising study (at least to feminist activists) showed a program that advocated abstinence seemed to be more effective in helping teens delay their first sexual experience.

The Guttmacher Institute studied the study that's been getting the most press. Just as we thought, the programs that best convince teens to wait to have sex don't moralize or tell them to wait until marriage. But only until they're ready and can make a healthy informed decision.

Or maybe it's just a political gambit. With all the moralizing of the Republicans in Congress, is it just a game to get votes? When Arlen Specter became a Democrat last May he stopped asking for funding for abstinence programs in his state, according to a article. And some activists would bring up the hypocrisy of unfaithful legislators telling young people to maintain the sanctity of marriage.

Behind the hype, one thing is clear: It's time for science and common sense to prevail. Contraception works when used correctly and reliably. Condoms are the best protection against STDs. Teenagers should be able to make decisions about their own lives with all the best tools at their disposal. So let's leave the moralizing to religious leaders, and the rest of us can get back to work.

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