Tuesday, January 22, 2008


For a long time now the United States has been one of the highest ranking countries in the West when it comes to teen pregnancies (the only Western, industrialized nation with a higher rate is Russia). But throughout the nineties, the numbers were slowly decreasing. Now, the CDC reports that the teen pregnancy rate has risen for the first time in 14 years. The question on everyone's mind is: Why?

Of course this is a complex issue, but we might want to look towards the moral attitudes and policies that have shaped America over the past eight years. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-year-old girls have grown up amid policies that restrict their access to information regarding safe sex; they have grown up in an environment that has become increasingly puritan and silent regarding sexuality. Meanwhile, they have grown up surrounded by pop culture that continues to objectify and oversexualize women.

One of Bush's big initiatives after taking office was encouraging schools to adopt "abstinence-only" sex education programs through nearly $1 billion of federal spending spread out over 5 years. These sex-ed programs not only teach teens that abstinence is the only form of contraception and protection against STDs for teens, they are often misleading and provide false information. A 2004 Washington Post article cites a government report which discovered that these federally funded programs frequently provide kids with medically inaccurate information, such as that condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31% of the time for heterosexual couples (in truth, when used correctly condoms will fail less than 3% of the time) and that as many as 10% of women who have abortions become sterile (there is virtually no risk of sterility when an abortion is performed safely by a medical professional). Some programs told kids that HIV can be spread via sweat and tears; other abstinence education courses presented as scientific fact a man's need for "sexual fulfillment" and "admiration" and a woman's need for "financial support."

Many of these programs also perpetuate stereotypes about boys being overly sexual and girls being the ones responsible for saying no. A 2006 AlterNet article says that the abstinence double standard promoted by these programs threatens girls' health. The article cites various examples from abstinence-only program workbooks: "The sexist theme that seems
to come up the most often in these classes is that girls just don't like sex, and therefore their main "job" is to keep boys, who do like sex, from getting any. A workbook from Sex Respect notes that "because they generally become aroused less easily, females are in a good position to help young men learn balance in relationships by keeping intimacy in perspective." But beware ladies, the increased sexualization of pop culture could interfere with your natural disdain for intercourse. The same workbook tells students that "a young man's natural desire for sex is already strong due to testosterone … females are becoming culturally conditioned to fantasize about sex as well."

The author, Jessica Valenti, explains: "
The only messages put forward about boys' sexuality is the idea that their urges are uncontrollable, and it's up to young women not to "tease" them." She furthermore reveals that the increasing obsession with girls' purity has led to many decisions which undermine girls' abilities to protect their health. For example, the new HPV vaccine which has been proven extremely effective in preventing cervical cancer is still outrageously expensive (close to $400 for the three-part vaccine) and not even covered by many insurance companies. Conservative abstinence educators, such as Leslie Unruh of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, believe that there is no reason to vaccinate children against a disease that is "100 percent preventable with proper sexual behavior." These same attitudes have led to other actions, such as making it increasingly difficult for women to get affordable access to such things as birth control and emergency contraceptive (also known as "the morning after pill" or "Plan B.")

Once upon a time, pharmaceutical companies provided low-cost pricing to college health services nationwide. As a result, university students were able to get birth control through their university health service at a very low cost or even for free. Last year, new legislation by the federal government forbid these type of contracts between colleges and pharmaceutical companies. As a result, the cost of birth control sky-rocketed to as much as triple or quadruple the original price. For many college students, the new prices became unaffordable. Others found themselves having to apply for aid. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin's Family Planning Waiver covers the cost of contraceptives for qualified patients. But the result of that is a further strain on taxpayers to cover new participants that previously would not have needed the program, had the federal government not pushed through completely moralistic legislation.

Luckily, Planned Parenthood is still available for young women who want to get low-cost contraception. Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood's presence is scarce in many areas of the country. Mississippi, for example, has only one health center in the entire state. Tennessee has 3, Idaho, Louisiana and Arkansas have 2 each and Kentucky has 4. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has 31. Oregon has 17, Minnesota and Illinois each have 25, New York has 78, Washington has 46 and Michigan has 29. Delaware, a state only a smidgen the size of Mississippi has 5 centers. (Go here to find out how many health centers an individual state has). Needless to say, access to family planning throughout the country is highly unbala
nced. At least if a girl in Wisconsin is told to abstain, she has somewhere to go for alternate information if she chooses not to. And if a girl in Illinois just can't "control" her boyfriend's "natural desires" and has unprotected sex, at least there are places she can go to get emergency contraception the next day.

But even for girls and women who do have access to these services, the ability to obtain them is becoming increasingly difficult. The anti-choice segment of the population has made significant strides in reducing a woman's ability to obtain an abortion: the costs are astronomical and not covered by insurance, some states have few, if any, medically-trained abortion providers, and many states require 24-hour wait-periods and mandatory counseling and ultrasound. But, not surprisingly, while the Right has put more and more restrictions on abortion, they have done nothing to prevent the need for it. In fact, they seem to be only interested in actions that have been proven to increase the number of unintended pregnancies. Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice organizations have taken on the responsibility of preventing the need for abortion. An article in Slate, written in January 2008, titled Let's Be Frank About Teen Sex and Abortion, explains that Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, "Boasted
correctly, that Planned Parenthood did "more to prevent unintended pregnancies, and the need for abortion, than any organization in America."" In a 2006 Huffington Post article, Richards, muses, "Imagine a day when every woman has access to the information and services she needs to stay healthy and, if she chooses, to plan healthy, wanted pregnancies. A day when teens, too, have every chance to prevent unintended pregnancy, get an education and stay on track to fulfill their dreams. Comprehensive access to the full range of birth control options -- including [Emergency Contraception] -- would inevitably reduce the need for abortion. That's a commonsense goal." A commonsense goal that our government has been doing little to reach.

And unfortunately it seems that the message that abstinence is the only effective method of preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexual transmitted infection, coupled with this increasingly restricted access to and information about contraception and family planning has taken its toll. A January 2008 article in the Huffington Post cited statistics that show that since 2003 contraception use among teens has declined, while the level of sexual activity has remained constant. Basically, kids aren't having less sex. They're just having less protected sex. And the result? 750,000 teen pregnancies in the next year, along with 4 million teens contracting STDs.

Telling teens that abstinence is the only answer has dangerous outcomes. First of all, it fosters an environment where teenagers are uncomfortable discussing sex and sexuality with adults. It turns sex into some kind of clandestine, shameful affair so that when a teenager makes the decision to engage in sexual intercourse, he or she will be less likely to turn to an adult for support in protecting him/herself. Secondly, promoting abstinence also means that those same teens are going to be less likely to be able to get information/protection on their own. Many girls are under the impression that if they go on the pill, they are going to be admitting that they are a failure. And didn't they learn in Sex Ed that condoms fail half the time? And since teens aren't getting real sex education from adults, they are left to learn all about sex from the entertainment world. And the media continues to put forward the message that a girl's greatest asset is her body.

The truth is, that what really prevents reckless or premature sexual activity is honest, open dialogue, trusting relationships between teens and adults and high levels of self-esteem and self-respect in girls. As Richards explains: "
All our experience shows that the more young people have their questions answered openly about contraception, relationships, and sexual health, the more likely they are to delay sexual activity. And when they do become sexually active, whether in their teen years, or optimally, later on, the more likely they are to have safer sex and use contraceptives correctly."

It's time to stop moralizing and be realistic. Hopefully it is not too late to undo the damage that has been done to the new and upcoming generations of young people.

No comments: