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The United States Is the Country With the Higest Rate of Teenage Pregnancy

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Where in the first world would one expect the teen pregnancy rate to be the highest? Surprisingly to many, it is the United States that has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any first world country, more than double the rate of twenty other first world countries and almost ten times greater than that of Switzerland. While some of the disparity can be attributed to factors such as income inequality, the presence of abstinence only education has a major impact on birth and STD rates in the United States in comparison to other countries with more comprehensive programs. It is clear that this difference in approach has a significant effect, and the United States needs to act to ensure the health of its citizens. Despite the popularity of abstinence-only education, it has not been proven in any way to be effective in meeting its goals of reducing teen pregnancies and STDs. Ineffectiveness aside, it also results in harm to American teenagers and society by attempting to discourage sex by saying condoms are not safe, and this results in decreased contraception use and thus more STDs and pregnancies. Finally, when America and other first world countries with abstinence only curricula are compared to countries which have a more comprehensive methodology to teaching health, it is clear what is the more effective approach. Abstinence only curricula targeted at adolescents are both ineffective at meeting their goals and do more harm than good overall.

The United States has, over recent years, seen an increase in the prevalence of abstinence only programs in schools. Federal funding has played a large role in this increase, as monetary incentives have been the driving force behind much of the change. Abstinence-only education became a government funded endeavor in 1981. The “AEGP’s expressed purpose is ‘to enable the state to provide abstinence education.’  If a state accepts funding through this program, it must have ‘as its exclusive purpose’ teaching abstinence, which necessarily prohibits education about other methods for maintaining reproductive health” (Rubenstein, 2017). To put it in numbers, the amount of federal dollars going to schools that adopted abstinence only programs almost tripled in the seven years between 1998 and 2005, increasing from 60 to 168 million dollars a year (Santelli, 2006). And among United States school districts that changed their policies, twice as many chose to adopt a curriculum that more heavily focused on abstinence only until marriage as moved towards a more comprehensive program (Landry, 1999). The heart of these policies is that sex is inherently negative. The fact that the program also disallows any other form of sexual education means that a child’s only formal education regarding sex will be filtered through this strong bias. However, unless the child has been sheltered from all social outlets, they will likely encounter sex through various other filters as well.

According to a recent study, ‘ninety-eight percent of parents say they want HIV/AIDS discussed in sex education classes; 85% want ‘how to use condoms’ discussed; 84% think sex education should cover ‘how to use and where to get other birth control,’ and 76% want homosexuality addressed in classroom sexuality education’ (Collins, Alagiri, et. al, 2002). This clearly shows that policy does not reflect the opinions of voters in the United States, whose kids are the ones affected by such laws. In addition, a survey of teenagers found that “51% say they need more information about how to get tested for HIV/AIDS and other STIs and 50% want more information on STIs other than HIV/AIDS; 39% want more information about abortion; 30% want more information on how to use condoms; and 27% say they need more information about sexual orientation’ (Collins, Alagiri, et. al, 2002). So, while abstinence-only education is increasingly taught in schools, it defies the wishes of adults and teenagers in the American public. Thus abstinence-only education is the direct result of political lobbying rather than a democratic consensus.

The reasons for why this approach fails are numerous, but some of the fault lies in things that are not easily corrected. The human socialization process insures that humans will communicate, interact, and eventually reproduce. Regardless of the opinions that one may hold regarding sex and society, one must concede that it is a driving force of human nature. The inevitability of it is why abstinence only programs are unsuccessful. In a study by the Rand Corporation, it was found that adolescents were two times more likely to engage in sex if they had watched a large amount of TV with sexual content compared to those who did not. “12-year-olds who watched a lot of television with sexual content behaved like the 14-(sic) or 15-years-olds who watched the least amount of sexual television” (Collins, Alagiri, et. al, 2002). This is just one pressure, and when combined with music, peer pressure, and a biological initiative that develops around this time in an adolescent’s life it’s no wonder that approaches that consist of telling teens to not have sex and but not presenting them with any advice for if they do fail. It is going to happen, and thus an approach that focused on protection and minimization of risk is much more appropriate than one that exaggerates risks and forgoes discussion of protection completely.

The distortion of facts that abstinence only sex education necessitates results in less use of contraception, which ironically increases teen pregnancies and STDs; the exact things these programs were trying to prevent in the first place. ‘More than one-third of districts with a policy to teach sexuality education require that abstinence be taught as the only option outside of marriage; under the vast majority of these policies, contraception may only be discussed in a way that highlights its shortcomings’ (Landry, 1999). This would not be an issue if teens remained abstinent, but to believe that they will is unrealistic.

Two separate studies, one looking at teens who had taken abstinence only classes and said they planned to remain abstinent and the other looking at teens who had signed a separate written abstinence pledge both found that “many teens who intend to be abstinent fail to do so” and that when they did fail, they were less likely to use contraception than their peers who had not made any such pledges (Santelli, 2006). When over 50% of high school teenagers report sexual activity in the past three months even after many have received abstinence only education, the problem is clear (Collins, Alagiri, et. al, 2002). While pregnancy rates are historically low, a study published by the Guttmacher Institute attributes only 14% to teens waiting to have sex and the remainder of 86% to increased use of birth control. Take birth control knowledge or availability out of the equation and there will certainly be negative consequences in STD and birth rates.

The movement away from abstinence only education was pushed heavily by the Obama administration. In 2009 and 2010 “congress agreed to cut two-thirds of the federal funding for existing abstinence-only education programs, as well as to spend $190 million intended to prevent unplanned teen pregnancy and curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases” (Obama Seeks to End Federal Funding, 2016). This, of course, heralds a conversation regarding the outlook of sexual education in the United States.

The goal of all sexual education is three fold:

  1. Prevent unwanted pregnancy.
  2. Prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases
  3. Prevent criminal behavior of a sexual nature.

Comprehensive sexual education is “education about abstinence, but extends instruction to include contraception, sexuality, and other topics related to sexual activity” (Huber, Firman, 2014). The comprehensive approach allows for a more complete dialogue surrounding sexual health and allows for it to be shown in a more positive sense. However, with a change in administration comes a change in policy. The conservative right has long been in favor of abstinence instruction and as such plans to redact the budget cuts are already in place and once again abstinence-only education is being placed on a sociological pedestal.

The United States is in large part alone in its approach to sexuality education, at least when compared to other first world nations, and the results speak for themselves. In Western Europe, where sexuality education almost invariably includes discussion of the use of contraception, birth rates are lower than the United States nearly across the board. The Netherlands and Switzerland especially have low teen birth rates of 6.2 and 5.5 births per 1000 girls respectively compared to 52.1 births per 1000 girls in the United States (‘A League Table Of Teenage Births In Rich Nations’, 2001). Comparing the approaches of Western European nations and the United States shows a clear divide in approaches. For example, state run programs in France distribute condoms to students starting in eighth grade. In The Netherlands sex education is compulsory in primary and secondary schools (elementary and high school) and covers topics such as contraception and communication and negotiation skills (Valk, 2000).

Germany has perhaps the most comprehensive of any of Europe’s programs, covering from homosexuality to abortions. The only area in Western Europe that does not follow this trend is the United Kingdom, where sex education is not compulsory and does not often go into contraception (Slater, 2000). So it should be no big surprise that of all the Western European countries, the one with the highest teen birth rate by far is the UK, at 30.8 births per 1000 girls (‘A League Table Of Teenage Births In Rich Nations’, 2001). It is clear that sex education programs in Europe address a different range of topics than those in the United States, and that they are more successful in their goals of reducing teen pregnancy. The two are most definitely related, and if the United States looks to Europe and follows their example of information and education over scare tactics, it will be much effective in reducing pregnancies and STDs.

Abstinence only sexuality education, despite its popularity in the United States, is both ineffective in reducing teen pregnancies and harmful to teens through its presentation of misinformation. Unfortunately, the topic has become hyperpolarized in the political sphere and as such progressive motions have been rescinded due to lobbyists and special interest groups. Programs that have no proof of efficacy are costing millions of dollars and accomplish nothing more than discouraging the use of contraceptives. And when it comes to what other countries have found effective, the data clearly shows that overall countries with more comprehensive programs have less of an issue with teen pregnancy. Comprehensive and abstinence plus curricula are more in line with societal pressures and what research tells us teens are doing on the whole, and relies on education backed up by solid science rather than scare tactics. American schools must adopt more forward thinking curricula if they ever hope to achieve the low teen pregnancy rates of countries that evidently have already realized what the United States has not.

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