Beginning in the early 1990s, the U.S. experienced a dramatic reduction in teen pregnancy and birth rates. As the country was ravaged by HIV/AIDS, the federal government, states and communities doubled-down their efforts to ensure young people everywhere received comprehensive sex education to protect them from contracting this deadly disease. As condom use and other forms of birth control skyrocketed among sexually active teens, and as young people began delaying sexual activity, the country experienced something unexpected – rapid declines in teen pregnancy and birth rates, particularly among Black teens.
That was then.
In the 2000s the progress that had been made began to stall as the federal government pumped nearly $2 billion of tax-payer money, including millions in California, into programs that promoted abstinence, not contraception, as the primary method of preventing pregnancy and the spread of disease. The first positive trend to reverse course was condom and other contraceptive use among teens. Now we are seeing the rise in teen pregnancy and births for the first time since 1990.
Abstinence-only advocates argue that people who don’t engage in sexual intercourse don’t get pregnant or contract disease. While that is medically accurate, more than 90 percent of young people will engage in intercourse before they reach 20-years old. And despite the fact that the average American marries for the first time in their mid-twenties, abstinence-only advocates continue to maintain that sexual intercourse should only occur within marriage. Encouraging young people to wait “until they are ready” is important. However, to promote programs that deny young people information about the effectiveness of condoms and other forms of birth control can, in fact, be dangerous to young people’s health and well-being.
Abstinence-only vs. contraception is not the choice. Funding programs that work vs. programs that do not work is the choice. And in that case, the scientific evidence is clear – programs that only promote abstinence simply do not work. Recent research out of the University of Washington showed that young people who attended abstinence-only programs had the same pregnancy rates as young people who never had any sex education. On the other hand, young people who received comprehensive sex education that discussed contraception as well as delaying sexual activity had half the teen pregnancies as compared to their abstinence-only counterparts.
Moreover, parents overwhelmingly support comprehensive sex education, particularly here in California. A 2007 poll showed that 89% of California parents support comprehensive sex education as compared to 11% who support abstinence-only programs.
It would be easy for the cable news pundits and their guests to get in a war of words about this alarming reversal in teen pregnancy and birth rates. However, these statistics represent real young women whose opportunities to lead successful lives have virtually vanished. Our challenge now is to follow the evidence and re-double our efforts to ensure that all young people receive the information they need to make informed decisions so they can lead healthy and productive lives.