(Click here to listen to a Public Service Announcement distributed by American Forum on the effects of abstinence-only education and the rise of premature parenthood and pregnancy rates among teenagers.)
The Spears family can't be shocked by much these days, not with Britney in every tabloid. Still the recent news seemed to unsettle them. Their 16-year-old daughter Jamie Lynn is pregnant. And while no bad news is unprofitable for the Spears (it is rumored Jamie Lynn, a TV star in her own right, was paid one million dollars to break the news in OK! Magazine), this particular note of fame does appear to have taken the family aback. ("I was in shock. I mean, this is my 16-year-old baby," her mother told OK!) It seems that no matter how well-to-do, (or bizarre) the family, it's always a tragedy to have one's child's adolescence taken away by pregnancy. While Jamie Lynn Spears is not your average teen, her situation is becoming a more common experience for many girls of her generation: premature parenthood.
A Center for Disease Control (CDC) report released this month reveals that in 2006 there was a dramatic rise in teen births among 15 to 19 year olds in the United States bringing to a grinding halt a steady 14-year decline. In fact, Jamie Lynn's situation exemplifies a reversal of many positive trends that began in the 1990s. Specifically there was a steep drop in abortion and unwanted pregnancy rates. During this period even sexual activity among high school students declined significantly. And those teens who were having sex -- as would an average of half of them would before graduating high school - were more likely to use protection.
Now these gains are slowing or reversing. Sadly, these reversals seemed inevitable. After all, since 2000 we have turned away from using every strategy that the previous decade proved effective.
Today's teens are the victims of a one billion dollar social experiment: The national implementation of the abstinence until marriage policy. Like the "Just Say No" to drugs campaigns of the Reagan years, it too has been a colossal failure.
Abstinence-only programs have not only failed to convince kids not to have sex, but have led many not to use contraception. To scare teens away from sexual activity, abstinence-only programs focus on the dangers of sex. If contraception is ever mentioned it is to highlight (and exaggerate) its failure rates. If a girl is told that even if her boyfriend uses a condom she'll get pregnant once every seven times -- as the popular abstinence program "Choosing the Best Way" instructs -- the incentive to use one dissipates.
Those promoting abstinence-only, mainly religious political groups, say parents should have the right to teach children according to their beliefs. What the same groups fail to mention is that the vast majority of parents -- 93 percent according to a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation poll -- want their teens taught comprehensive sex ed, including accurate information about protection from pregnancy and disease. If there is a prevailing belief among parents it is decidedly anti-abstinence-only education. They're in good company too: All mainstream organizations of health professionals that deal with young people strongly criticize federal support for current abstinence programs. These include the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine. Last month 10 of the top experts in the fields of adolescent sexual and reproductive health advised Congress to completely de-fund abstinence-only programs because they withhold "potentially life-saving information from youth."
The toll of withholding potentially life-saving information is becoming tragically evident. In the states where the abstinence-only approach is more likely to be used disease is up. School districts in the South are five times more likely than in the Northeast to teach only abstinence. Today, the southern states have the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS infections, the highest rate of STDs, as well as the highest rate of teen births. While over the last decade other regions have made major strides in decreasing or stagnating HIV infection rates, according to the CDC the South accounts for 45 percent of all new cases.
Many states are realizing that instilling ignorance about sex and protection in our teens is the real moral violation. Teens need accurate information in order to make important life decisions. That is why, to date, 15 states have refused federal money for abstinence-only funding. Parents in the remaining 35 states must demand that their governors and statehouses reject federal grants for these ineffective and dangerous programs too. It's the only time just saying no might actually work.
Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for BirthControlWatch.org