Why Abstinence Focused Sex Ed Hurts Black Girls
The GOP thinks telling girls to wait until marriage to have sex is effective—here’s why their gamble makes us all losers.
I became a mother a few months after my 30th birthday. It wasn’t until I was pregnant that I found out my family didn’t think I was ever going to have a baby. Why? They figured I was just getting too old! I thought that was nuts at the time, but the more I reflected on it, the more I realized that I come from a time and place where teenage pregnancy was the norm. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio in the 80s and 90s, many of my friends and family members had cutie-patootie munchkins before they turned 18. We all know that babies are a blessing, but I also know how hard some of these young ladies struggled to be amazing moms to their kids.
That’s why it was heartening to hear that in 2010 (the latest year for which data is available), teen pregnancies dropped nine percent nationwide to 34.3 teenage births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 to 19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that this is the lowest rate reported since 1946. But while the number dropped across all racial groups, it’s still higher than average for black girls, with 52 pregnancies per 1,000 teens. Why? Well, education seems to have a lot to do with it.
A 2008 University of Washington in Seattle study found that teens who attend comprehensive sex education courses are 60 percent less likely to get pregnant–or get someone else pregnant–than those who have not taken a course. What’s more, those who receive an abstinence-focused education were no less likely to have sex than those who hadn’t learned anything at all. There are 37 states that require abstinence as part of any sex ed program, and 26 of those require that abstinence be emphasized. According to the Guttmacher Institute, of the five states with the highest teen pregnancy rates (New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Mississippi), four of them require an emphasis on abstinence education. And in those five states, the pregnancy rate for black teens was nearly double those of their white counterparts. It appears that when the education is focused on sex avoidance, our teens really suffer. Literally.
A recent study found that only 51 percent of teen moms have received their high school diploma by their 22nd birthday, versus the 89 percent diploma attainment rate for women who don’t have children when they’re young. But teenage mothers aren't the only ones whose future is at risk. Even when you control for factors like growing up poor, having parents with low education levels or being raised by only one parent, the children of teenage moms are at higher risk to drop out of high school, have health problems, be incarcerated as adolescents, be unemployed as young adults and become teen parents themselves. Which brings us—as many things do these days—to the current election.
The GOP’s recently adopted platform advocates for abstinence-focused education (surprise, surprise):
“We renew our call for replacing ‘family planning’ programs for teens with abstinence education which teaches abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. Abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against out-of-wedlock pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS when transmitted sexually. It is effective, science-based, and empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes and avoid risks of sexual activity. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referrals, counseling, and related services for abortion and contraception.”
Sigh. This is yet another reason why we need to vote according to the issues that influence our lives most.
Do you think abstinence-focused education works? Glad you had comprehensive sex ed as a kid? Tell us in the comments.