LAST WEEK'S report of 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears's pregnancy was big news across the nation. Yet what rarely makes the news is the day-to-day reality of teen pregnancy in America, which has the highest teen pregnancy rate among the most developed nations.
Teen pregnancy is a critical public health and economic issue facing the United States, and a recently released Centers for Disease Control study on teen birth rates is proof that the Bush administration has the nation going down the wrong path. The CDC reported earlier this month that the teen birth rate rose last year after 14 years of decline. This is cause for concern on many levels, as the effects of teen pregnancy and parenting are far-reaching.
Adolescents today are faced with more cultural contradictions about sex than ever before. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 70 percent of television shows include sexual content; yet at the same time, only 14 percent mention contraception, abstinence, or the consequences of sex. While the entertainment industry may give parents headaches when it comes to the messages that are being sent to their kids, an often overlooked message is the one young people are being taught (or not taught) in school.
Over the last decade, President Bush and other supporters of abstinence-only-until-marriage classroom programs have wasted more than $1 billion on programs that simply do not work. Study after study, including a recent one commissioned by Congress, has shown that these unrealistic programs do not delay sexual activity, reduce the number of teen pregnancies, or combat sexually transmitted infections. These programs are prohibited from discussing contraception or condom use, except to emphasize failure rates, and leave young people at risk by denying them access to critical information about their sexual health. We are now beginning to see the impact of the Bush administration's policy of promoting ignorance in the name of abstinence.
Teen pregnancy has significant social and economic ramifications for Massachusetts. It is the number one reason why adolescent girls drop out of school. Young men are also impacted by teenage pregnancy - since male adolescents are significantly more likely to drop out of school when parenting a child. According to a report released by the Massachusetts Department of Education about the class of 2006, 40 percent of urban students failed to finish high school in four years, and 22 percent have dropped out entirely.
Education is the key to success in life, and the silver bullet for improving the nation's standing worldwide. However, less than one-third of teenagers who give birth before the age of 18 will ever obtain a high school diploma, leading to fewer qualified workers to strengthen the economy. And while unintended pregnancy is one of the largest contributors to high school dropout rates, it is also perhaps the most preventable.
Comprehensive sex education, which includes a focus on both abstinence and prevention, is the only educational approach proven to delay the onset of sexual activity and reduce unintended pregnancy, as confirmed by a report from the US surgeon general. Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature took an important step earlier this year when they joined 14 states and refused federal funding for ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. But it's time to go a step further.
The only way to combat the high rate of teen pregnancy is through investment in comprehensive health and sex education, access to affordable birth control, and real public awareness about sexual health. Teenagers who learn about risks and ways to protect themselves when sexually active are more likely to delay sexual activity, and use protection if and when they do become sexually active.
Given the recent rise in teen birth rates, and the mixed messages our culture sends out every day, it is irresponsible for school districts in the state not to offer comprehensive sex-education programs. It's time to get real, and recognize that sexual health matters.
Dianne Luby is president/CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.