Population Matters

Congress’s Responsibility to Youth

July 27th, 2012

Over the past few decades we have made a lot of progress in reducing teenage pregnancy rates and improving the reproductive health of women in the United States, but an appropriations bill that is now moving in the U.S. House of Representatives would do much to reverse that momentum.  The bill would eliminate Title X funding for family planning clinics and slash funding for comprehensive sex education programs in schools.  But to make matters worse, it would boost funding for abstinence-only education programs. Is Congress unaware that these programs have been discredited, or is it simply choosing to turn a blind eye?

Peer-reviewed, published research shows no evidence that abstinence-only programs delay sexual initiation, reduce STIs, or prevent pregnancies. While the programs include discussions of values and character building, they neglect to acknowledge the fact that many teens will become sexually active. They rarely provide information on even the most basic topics in human sexuality, such as puberty, reproductive anatomy, and sexual health. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has recommended eliminating all federal, state, and local requirements mandating abstinence-only in our schools. How can we expect youth to make smart decisions about sex when we deny them the information they need to make informed choices?

According to the Guttmacher Institute, every year sees nine million new cases of STIs among 15-24 year olds, and an estimated 750,000 pregnancies and 190,000 abortions among 15-19 year olds. These statistics have grave implications: STIs can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancies, reproductive cancers, and spontaneous abortions or still births. Adolescent girls who become mothers are also less likely to complete high school. Their children may experience poorer health outcomes, lower education attainment, and higher rates of adolescent childbearing. Teen pregnancies also contribute to higher welfare costs. In 2004, public costs associated with teen birth amounted to at least $9.1 billion.

We need comprehensive sex education to lower these numbers and improve the health of our young people. Credible research proves that comprehensive sex education, or “abstinence-plus” programs as they are sometimes called, can effect positive behavioral changes and reduce STIs. Evidence shows that they increase contraception use, delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the number of sexual partners, and curb the frequency of sexual activity. Because they recognize that many teens will become sexually active, these programs enable responsible decision-making by teaching medically accurate and age appropriate information on healthy relationships, contraception, and STIs.

Public opinion polls show parents of middle and high school students actually support a comprehensive sexuality program; 93% and 91%, respectively, believe it’s very important or somewhat important to have sex education in the school curriculum. Another 72% and 65%, respectively, believe the federal government should fund comprehensive sex education. Public support extends beyond parents to include most demographic categories: Democrats, Republicans, Independents, evangelical Christians, and, yes, even Catholics.

Sex education is an inherently sensitive issue, but we ignore at our peril the public health benefits of providing comprehensive sex education.  Promoting abstinence-only programs may make us feel more righteous, but the programs do a poor job of curbing sexual activity and preventing unintended pregnancies.  And that’s the bottom line.

We should look to Europe, where greater, easier access to sexual health information and services has resulted in better sexual health outcomes. Societal openness and pragmatic government policies have produced lower pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates, a lower percentage of the adult population diagnosed with HIV/ AIDS, and a lower incidence of STIs than in the United States.

In an effort to shift the social paradigm in this country, Advocates for Youth has a program entitled, “Rights. Respect. Responsibility.”  That’s the correct approach.  We owe it to our young people to provide them with the information they need to make informed and responsible choices.

Posted by Lucy Dicks-Mireaux, Public Policy Fellow

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