Health, Sex and PoliticsThursday, October 30th, 2008
Once again, teen pregnancy has consumed our national conversation. In discussing Bristol Palin, the pregnant and unmarried 17-year-old daughter of presumptive Republican Vice Presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin, we are afforded an opportunity to examine hot-button issues of sex and public health. The Palin story illustrates the discrepancy in how teen pregnancy prevention is handled in our schools, and how it works in reality. Our schools promote “safe sex”, though that was obviously not practiced in the case of Bristol Palin.
The contradiction is that Bristol’s mother, who is now suddenly a high profile political figure who may soon have a strong influence on public health policy, actively campaigns against sex education and promotes only abstinence as birth control. That clearly did not work to prevent teen pregnancy in the case of her own family.
There is an enormous amount of public health data and solid statistics outlining the facts around teenage sexual behavior and pregnancy. I’d like to share with you some of this data.
- 3 out of 10 girls in the US (approximately 730,000) become pregnant before age 20. 80% of those pregnancies are unplanned.
- 30% of teens between age 15-17 report that they have had sex. More than 50% state that they have had more than one partner.
- 88% report that they do not “consistently” use condoms.
- 26% of teens have a sexually transmitted disease.
- A large-scale national study on abstinence-only sex education clearly concluded that it does not prevent teenagers from having sex and if they do have sex, it does not affect whether or not they use a condom.
Public figures that push teen pregnancy into the headlines, including Jamie Lynn Spears, the supposed “pregnancy pact” made by students in Gloucester, MA, and the popular film Juno, help to highlight other important issues. In sexually active teens, an even greater risk than pregnancy is sexually transmitted disease. If sex education is not taught and teen sexuality simply denied, how do teens know how to behave in any sort of responsible way? As parents, health educators and a nation, we need to take a good, hard look at how we are serving the needs of our children. Examples like this one illustrate the larger point about the importance of this conversation, and in choosing leaders who understand what is at stake.