DESPITE being one of the world's richest countries, the United States has teen pregnancy rates befitting nations in the developing world. Teen mothers and their infants are at significantly higher health risks from pregnancy complications - not to mention social risks, such as dropping out of school. Yet teenage pregnancy has become a staple of American culture, especially after the much-covered celebrity pregnancies of 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears and 17-year-old Bristol Palin.
Now a jarring report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that teen motherhood has risen for the second year in a row, reversing a 14-year downward trend. Though the 2.8 percent rise in 2006 and 1 percent increase in 2007 cannot be attributed to any one cause, the change is worrisome.
Congressional efforts to reduce risky behaviors in teens have focused on the classroom. Yet because sexual education models vary, some students get a far more effective education than others.
A big problem is a resource deficit for sexual education. Congress has approved $1.5 billion in grants for abstinence-only education to states in the last 10 years, despite the findings in a study funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2007 that abstinence-only education did not reduce teenage sexual activity. These results demand a rethink in educational strategy, and yet even after almost half the states rejected this funding, Congress is still only half-listening.
Congress is cutting some abstinence-only funding to cope with budget shortfalls. Yet decreasing funds for ineffective programs will not solve the teen pregnancy problem without substituting funding for those programs that do work.
Studies show that adolescents who receive comprehensive sex-ed - including accurate information about contraception in addition to promoting abstinence - are at a lower risk of pregnancy than adolescents who received abstinence-only or no sex education. Last month, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Representative Barbara Lee of California introduced the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would provide grants for comprehensive sexual education programs, and set up a system to evaluate their effectiveness. Call it abstinence-plus.
Giving schools money for comprehensive programs that are effective at reducing teen pregnancy has much higher returns than abstinence-only money. Only 40 percent of teenage parents go on to graduate from high school, leaving many to a lifetime of dependency. An investment in teenage reproductive health and safety is not one Congress can afford to pass up.