Public education and politics have always been and will forever be intertwined because it is funded by the government with our tax dollars. It stands to reason that political punditry about what they think is best for our children often intersects with what is actually best for them.
One such example of this is the recent decision by the Health and Human Services Department to cut more than $200 million from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program, which began in 2010 and was renewed in 2015 for five more years. The program, which has already documented its own success, is designed to give $89 million a year to 81 organizations throughout the United States in an effort to promote sex education to teens. The funding cut would result in the program ending in June 2018 as opposed to June 2020, as it was originally scheduled.
In its place, HHS is increasing funding for abstinence only until marriage programs. Since 1982, the United States government has spent more than $2 billion on abstinence-only sex education within the United States, and another $1.4 billion has been spent internationally. In theory, abstinence is certainly the best way to prevent teenage pregnancies, but teaching children to that their only option is to wait until marriage is impractical.
Americans are marrying later, on average, and some are not marrying at all, but they're not waiting longer to begin having sex. The average age for initiating sexual activity has remained around 17 or 18 since the early 1990s. Simply put, the average American is going to have sex approximately ten years before they get married.
A recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that “The weight of scientific evidence shows [abstinence only] programs do not help young people delay initiation of sexual intercourse...These programs simply do not prepare young people to avoid unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases." This study further noted that “In 2004, the House Committee on Government Reform released a report that 11 of the 13 [abstinence only] programs most widely used...contained false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health, misrepresentations about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy, as well as gender and sexual minority stereotypes, moral judgments, religious concepts, and factual errors.”
Tennessee is a picture-perfect example of a conservative state that strongly advocates the harmful teaching of abstinence only programs. State law requires all school districts in counties with a pregnancy rate exceeding 19.5 per 1,000 females, ages 15–17, to create and implement a family life education program. Family life education programs must be locally developed or districts may adopt the curriculum approved by the State Board of Education (TCA 49-6-1302).
My county’s pregnancy rate for females ages 15-17 is 19.6. The state average is 15.2 pregnancies per 1,000 females. These numbers tend to fluctuate because the pregnancy rate is based on the number of pregnancies per the total number of 15-17 year olds in that year. If a county has fewer than 1,000 females in the 15-17 age range, then the number is multiplied. Therefore, this data itself is flawed. Nevertheless, Coffee County is required implement an abstinence only program in school. In fact, state law makes it a Class C misdemeanor to teach anything other than abstinence until marriage (TCA 49-6-1005). Further, schools are prevented from contracting with individuals or organizations “if that individual or organization endorses student non abstinence as an appropriate or acceptable behavior” (TCA 49-6-1303). State law also specifies that “a family life curriculum shall emphatically promote only sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student's current or prior sexual experience” (TCA 49-6-1304).
As a father of two young girls, this issue is important to me. I will exercise my right to teach them about various forms of birth control, which will include, but not be limited to, abstinence. Not all children are so lucky to have adults in the house to properly advise them, and it is imperative that Tennessee lead the way of conservative states who are willing to take a realistic approach to this issue. Teaching children various ways to prevent pregnancy doesn’t encourage them to have sex; it simply increases their toolbox and the likelihood that they can prevent pregnancy until they’re actually ready.