Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Should Be Banned

Sophia Bollag, Managing Editor

The rate of teenage pregnancies in the U.S. increased by 3 percent from 2005 to 2006, signaling a change in the trend of decreasing pregnancy rates since 1990, when teenage pregnancy reached an all-time high. In the face of rising teen pregnancy rates, more states should adopt legislation like that already enacted in California, which requires sexual education in schools to be comprehensive, meaning it must teach both abstinence and contraceptive use.

After a 2003 revision, California Education Code permits schools to teach both abstinence and contraceptive use, but never one without the other, reversing a trend in some schools towards abstinence-only sexual education.

Recently, the Illinois senate passed legislation similar to California’s by a narrow margin of two votes. However, banning abstinence-only sex education should not cause so much debate.

Studies show that pregnancy rates for teenagers fell further in states that banned abstinence-only education. Douglas Kirby, a senior researcher at ETR Associates in California and author of a 2005 survey of the efficacy of sex education programs worldwide, said he believes more widespread teaching of contraceptive use was responsible for California’s steep decline in teenage pregnancies even before it banned abstinence-only education.

“California took a very progressive approach,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “Texas pushed abstinence and made it more difficult for teens to receive contraceptives. Pregnancy did go down between 1991 and 2004, but Texas had the second-lowest decline of all states, 19 percent. California had the second-greatest decrease, 46 percent.”

Dan Duffy, a Republican senator from Illinois argued that teaching contraceptive use in high schools would encourage students to have sex. As evidence, he cited California’s sex education policy and pointed out that California has a higher rate of teen pregnancy than Illinois.

“Why would you want to duplicate a failed policy?” he asked. “This policy would do the opposite of what we want it to: increase pregnancies and increase the frequency of STDs.”

Duffy ignored the fact that, due to demographic differences, California’s rate of teen pregnancy has always been higher than Illinois’. He also ignored the fact that since 1990, California’s teen pregnancy rate has decreased at a steeper rate than Illinois’.

Valerie Huber, director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said she does not believe abstinence-only education is the only factor responsible for the recent rise in teenage pregnancy.

“While this recent uptick is certainly disconcerting, it would be disingenuous to try to ascribe it to abstinence education or any other single factor,” she told the New York Times last year. “The overly sex-saturated culture certainly plays a part, with teen sex communicated almost as an expected rite of passage, without consequences.”

She may be right that abstinence-only education is not entirely to blame. However, the racy cultural trend she referenced makes contraceptive education imperative. When sex education teachers and modern culture present completely opposite standards for behavior, which will teenagers be more likely to follow?

While parents or religious leaders may succeed in convincing students to abstain from engaging in sex as teenagers, sex educators are unlikely to do so in the face of conflicting cultural norms, especially because these educators are often not part of a school’s regular staff, and are instead from outside organizations such as the American Red Cross or Planned Parenthood and are only seen by students once or twice a year. Sex education has a much better chance of preventing STDs and teen pregnancy if it teaches contraception, which does not conflict with cultural standards.