Dr. Michelle Golland: The story about first graders possibly getting condoms in Massachusetts showed, yet again, how the issue of sex education in our country has become politicized in such a ridiculous way that we lose sight of the importance of informing our children about their sexuality and reproductive health. This issue should not be placed in the Liberal vs. Conservative category. Rather, it squarely falls within "public health."
Teen pregnancy is a public health issue that should cause us all a great deal of concern. The problem is that when we look at it with a religious or political view, too many people arm themselves with "family values" and claim that they don't want our public schools to address these "value" decisions. Unfortunately, birth control and teen pregnancy aren't "value" issues. They're very critical issues of child development.
The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. The following statistics clearly show how we are failing our teenagers with the ineffective and inconsistent messages we are giving them regarding their sexuality and reproduction:
- One third of girls get pregnant before the age of 20.
- There are 750,000 teen pregnancies annually.
- Eight in ten of these pregnancies are unintended, and 81 percent of pregnant teens are unmarried.
- Each year, there are 9 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases among 15- to 24-year-olds.
- There are 5,000 new HIV infections among 13- to 24-year-olds annually.
- There are approximately 200,000 abortions among teens every year.
- In 2006, were 435,436 births among 15- to 19-year-olds.
France, Germany, Sweden and Canada do a far better job reducing teen pregnancies. Per every 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, the annual pregnancy rates are as follows:
United States -- 72.2
France -- 25.7
Germany -- 18.8
Canada -- 16.3
The estimated public cost for teen pregnancy in the United States is between $6 and $9 billion a year. Eighty percent of teen moms here are on some form of public assistance. Seven out of ten teen mothers are unlikely to receive prenatal care, which of course has great negative health impacts for their children. Aside from the health risks, kids born to teen mothers are at greater risk for emotional and physical abuse, especially if there is no family support. These kids are also at higher risk of having emotional and academic problems later in life. Another startling statistic? Baby boys of teen mothers are at an increased risk for incarceration later in their lives, while girls born to teens are more likely to become teen moms themselves.
We know that comprehensive sex education works when it comes to curbing the teen pregnancy epidemic. It's what other industrialized countries offer, and it's why they have been able to dramatically decrease their rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion.
We Americans must move past the archaic view that teen pregnancy is about religion and family values, and wake up to the reality that this close-minded approach has resulted in devastating consequences for our young people.
First, we must achieve a social and cultural consensus that sexuality is a normal and healthy part of being human, and that, for many, sexual intercourse is part of the teen experience. (By age 16, 40 percent of Americans have had sexual intercourse.) Religious zealots and naive parents simply cannot ignore that this is happening. Our teens are not going to stop having sex.
Ways to Improve Adolescent Sexual Health
- Use sound research as the basis for public health policies about teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and reproduction. Political and religious groups should have LITTLE influence on this public health issue.
- Create a national desire to reduce the number of abortions and prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
- Ensure easy access to contraception and condoms, consistent sex education and widespread public education campaigns.
- Encourage government support of massive, consistent, long-term public education campaigns through the Internet, television, films, radio, billboards, pharmacies and health-care providers. The media should be a respected partner in these campaigns.
- Make sure that sex education in public schools starts in late elementary school and is comprehensive and consistent over the course of children's schooling all the way through 12th grade. Ideally, educators should provide accurate and complete information about contraception options, abstinence and all health-related issues. Emotional and relational issues should be discussed as well.
We must stop with the hysterical responses in the media and address the real issue about teen pregnancy in our country. The ramifications are far greater than the simple argument that some parents don't want their kids taught about sex at school.
We are dealing with a real crisis in our country, and I believe that the response of "family values" has been used to hijack this issue in a destructive and ignorant manner. We as a country obviously (given our horrible teen pregnancy statistics) can't rely on parents to do the educating that is so clearly needed.