Time to Say No to Abstinence-Only

Marcia Greenberger

Teen pregnancy is a crucial public health issue -- but the federal government refuses to address it with anything more effective than failed abstinence-only programs.

Last
week, the announcement that Governor Palin’s daughter is pregnant reignited
a national conversation about teenage pregnancy that was first sparked earlier in the
year by Jamie Lynn Spears and the film Juno.

The issue of teen pregnancy deserves more than
fleeting tabloid coverage.  It needs sustained
attention and action. Each
year
, 750,000 adolescents in the U.S. become pregnant – far more than in most other industrialized nations – and 82 percent of such pregnancies are unintended. In addition to potential risks to the health
of both the mother and her child, pregnancy at a young age can severely limit a
young woman’s ability to complete her education – and subsequently to
find a well-paying job.

Yet,
rather than addressing this critical public health issue through comprehensive
and medically accurate sex education which includes information on abstinence
and contraception, the federal government has spent more than $1.5 billion on
abstinence-only programs that have failed our teens.

Federally
funded abstinence-only programs are expressly prohibited from providing any
information to adolescents about the proper use of contraceptives, or their
proven efficacy in preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted
infections (STIs) – only their failure rates can be discussed. On top of
slanting the information, studies have documented that over 80 percent
of abstinence-only curricula actually provide medically inaccurate and
misleading information about contraception and other reproductive health care
– including grossly exaggerated failure rates for condoms and false information
about the risks of abortion.

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Considering
how far women candidates have come in the 2008 election season, it is
especially galling that some of these curricula teach that girls care less than
boys about achievement and their futures. For example, Why kNOw (2002), a curriculum used by
seven federally-funded abstinence-only programs, teaches: "women gauge
their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men’s
happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments."

Study after study
demonstrate that abstinence-only programs don’t work, and the public
agrees. According to a recent poll
conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, two-thirds (64%) of women
voters say that it is extremely or very important for Congress and the next
administration to address policies that will help prevent unintended
pregnancies by expanding access to contraceptives and comprehensive sex
education.

Rather
than continuing to fund ineffective, inaccurate, and dangerous abstinence-only
programs, we should invest in comprehensive sex education programs that help
teens meet the challenges they face. Young people – particularly young
women – need and deserve comprehensive information that is accurate and
unbiased to prevent unintended pregnancies and STIs, and to make responsible
decisions for their health and their lives.

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