Tennessee has come under fire for recently enacting one of the strictest pro-abstinence sex education laws in the country. Teachers and even speakers from outside groups could be fined $500 for violations — despite the fact the legislation is so vaguely worded that experts are having trouble figuring out just what is taboo and what is not.
Tennessee has come under fire for recently enacting one of the strictest pro-abstinence sex education laws in the country.
Critics call it the “no holding-hands bill” because it forbids educators from condoning “gateway sexual activity.” Teachers, and even speakers from outside groups, could be fined $500 for violations — despite the fact the legislation is so vaguely worded that experts are having trouble figuring out just what is taboo and what is not.
“The very ambiguous language in this bill certainly puts teachers in a very difficult situation” about what they may teach, Jerry Winters, spokesman for the Tennessee Education Association, told Reuters. He said the sex education policy previously in place was “quite adequate.”
“It does focus on abstinence, but in this modern world, to say that ‘just say no’ is the answer to teenage pregnancy is putting your head in the sand,” Winters said.
A number of recent studies suggest he is correct. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the teen birth rate had hit a record low.
According to the CDC, which began tracking teen births in 1940, the progress can be attributed to two factors: “The impact of strong pregnancy prevention messages” and “increased use of contraception.”
Other studies also show the benefits of providing teens with comprehensive sex education. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle examined what was most effective for students — abstinence-only education or comprehensive sex education that included birth control instruction.
“There was no evidence to suggest that abstinence-only education decreased the likelihood of ever having sex or getting pregnant,” study lead author Pamela Kohler said in a statement.
In fact, they found receiving comprehensive sex education made teens 60 percent less likely to get pregnant or impregnate someone else.
So how do abstinence-only programs fare? A federal report in 2007 found they had “no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence.”
Tennessee’s pregnancy rate among girls 15 to 17 has been steadily dropping since the 1990s, going from 48.2 pregnancies per 1,000 girls in 1998 to 29.6 pregnancies per 1,000 girls in 2009 (the most recent data available). The state began abstinence-focused sex education curriculum in the ’90s, and supporters of abstinence-only programs point to those numbers as proof their strategy is working.
However, Tennessee still has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in America, so clearly there is much more to be done. And one only has to compare the sex education programs of the states with the highest teen birth rates to the lowest to see which strategy is most effective.
For example, Mississippi’s 55 births per 1,000 girls comes in at No. 1. That state does not require schools to offer sex education, but abstinence-only is the state standard for those that do.
On the flip side of the list is New Hampshire. Schools there must teach comprehensive sex education that includes both abstinence and contraceptive information. The result? Under 16 births per 1,000 girls.
Since statistics show that states with comprehensive sex education programs have fewer teen pregnancies, it seems to me lawmakers would be better off modeling their states’ sex-education policies on states with the lowest pregnancy rates in the nation. But Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive health research organization, told the Associated Press that several states have actually gone in the opposite direction, moving toward abstinence-only education in recent years.
“What we know ... from the research is that comprehensive sex education works,” she said. “It delays sexual activity, it reduces the number of partners teens have and it increases contraceptive use. There is very little in the way of any rigorous research that shows that abstinence education has any of these long-term benefits.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying teens should be having sex. However, we have to be realistic. Not all teens will embrace abstinence, no matter what we say. And if there are some who will do it anyway, can’t we all agree it is better to ensure they know how to best protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and diseases?
City editor Amy Gehrt may be reached at email@example.com.