Why abstinence only education doesn’t work.

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By now, Americans are aware of the story of Bristol Palin, daughter of Alaska governor and Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin. During the 2008 US presidential campaign, it became evident that Bristol, an unmarried teenager was pregnant. She and boyfriend Levi Johnston were engaged for a while, but they now seem to have broken up (for now?). I’ll be honest, I feel bad for what Bristol has been put through, but perhaps we can use her story as a spring board for discussion of abstinence only education in American high schools.

If anything, Bristol Palin’s story should be an example that teenagers have sex despite abstinence only education. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 46% of all American teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 have had sex at least once. Furthermore, the teen birth rate is on the rise. In 2007, the teen birth rate rose 1% according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention – the second year in a row that a rise occurred.

How should the US go about preventing teenage pregnancy? It is important for schools to have comprehensive sex education. This includes discussion of the values of abstinence (and that it’s ok for teens to remain abstinent if they choose to do so) along side discussion of birth control and disease prevention (should teens decide to have sex). While abstinence until marriage is something that some people feel strongly about, not everyone feels that way; no side is right or wrong here. Instead of promoting one belief system over another, public schools have a responsibility to present unbiased information so that teens can make informed decisions about their sexual activity. If parents have strong views about abstinence, they should discuss this with their children at home and not subject other children (whose parents may see things differently) to their personal beliefs.

Furthermore, birth control and disease prevention can also be issues among married couples. Even if teens choose to remain abstinent until marriage, delaying child bearing or preventing the spread of STDs/STIs may be issues in their married life.

In sum, the only way to reduce the teen pregnancy rate and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and infections is to provide teenagers with unbiased, comprehensive sex education.

Guttmacher Institute


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