by Marcia D. Greenberger, Co-President
National Women’s Law Center
Last week, the announcement that Governor Palin’s daughter is pregnant reignited a discussion around teenage pregnancy that was first sparked earlier in the year by Jamie Lynn Spears and the film Juno.
More than fleeting tabloid coverage, the issue of teen pregnancy deserves sustained attention and action. Each year, 750,000 adolescents in the U.S. become pregnant — far higher than in most other industrialized nations — and 82 percent of the time the pregnancy is 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.
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.