Thursday, December 06, 2007

We Need to Do Better

Where were you in 1991? I'll show my age by saying that in 1991 I was, well, 12. Just shy of the highly coveted title of teenager.

Why the focus on 1991 ? Because that's when the birth rate in a teen age group, 15-19, mostly high-schoolers or freshmen in college, started dropping. It fell all through my years in high school, and college. My younger sister, who was 6 at the time of the first decline in the teen pregnancy rate, almost made it through college herself with a continual decline. Almost. However, as reported here in the Washington Post, for the first time in 14 years, the national teen birth rate went up between 2005 and 2006.

Think about it. 14 years. Which means that when the decline started, the teens in that age group were toddlers and pre-schoolers. And it means that when Bush was elected, they were in middle school, or just beginning high school. I don't know about all of you, but my sex education classes started in 6th grade. I got a refresher my first year of high school.

And where did the Bush administration put their money? Into abstinence-only programs. Coincidence? Well, it's a little too early to really say for sure. We need to wait until next year to find out if the teen birth rate increase was the start of a trend or just a one-year hiccup. However, we've already been told by many studies that abstinence-only sex education does nothing to change teens' behavior, so I'm forcasting that we'll see another increase next year.

Despite this, there are those who believe it's the other way around:

"This shows that the contraceptive message that kids are getting is failing,"
said Leslee Unruh of the Abstinence Clearinghouse. "The contraceptive-only
message is treating the symptom, not the cause. You need to teach about
relationships. If you look at what kids have to digest on a daily basis, you
have adults teaching kids about the pleasures of sex but not about the
responsibilities that go with it."
I actually have to agree with most of the last part of her statement. We do need to teach about relationships. Kids do digest a lot of sex-themed stuff on a daily basis; if we look at the media and advertising industries, it's very obvious that we as a country are sex-obsessed. However, what's ironic to me is that she's talking about the responsibilities that go along with sex...while promoting abstinence. Abstinence is not responsible sex. Abstinence is not having sex at all.

Here's the thing: I'm not anti-abstinence. I absolutely think teens (and everyone else) should wait to have sex until they're ready. Most teens aren't really ready, or mature enough. But telling them just not to do it, and giving them no information about how to do it responsibly when they inevitably do it anyway is a disservice to them--and it puts them at mortal risk.

Teens (and younger, even) need to know what the risks are, and how to avoid them. They need to know that abstinence--not just of intercourse, but of all bodily-fluid interactions (ok, besides kissing)--is the only safe option, but there are ways of making sexual behavior safer. This is not just about avoiding pregnancy, but avoiding contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also known as STDs).

Recently I watched a DVD of a film produced in 1989, on some stories behind the panels of the AIDS quilt. It went through a timeline, of when the disease first appeared, the long delay before it first appeared in the media, and how many thousands of Americans had died before the president actually spoke the word. The Surgeon General at the time, C. Everett Coop, was shown speaking out about...abstinence only sex education in the schools. He said something like, "This should be about saving lives, not saving souls."

The rate of chlamydia has gone up. The teen birth rate has gone up. And guess what. According to the Center for Disease Control, the rate of HIV infection in that age group in the U.S. (and many above it) has increased as well. Remember, there is still no cure for AIDS.

So those teen girls who are having babies, and those (presumably) teen boys who are fathering them, are all at risk for HIV and a host of other infections.

This isn't about saving souls. This is about saving lives. And we need to do better.

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