Today, a piece by Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA was posted on Huffington Post urging us to change the dialogue around teenagers and sex. Johnson wants us to re-evaluate the discussion about teenage pregnancy: instead of stigmatizing sexually active teens, we should focus on access to sex education that would foster informed decision-making.
A lot of conversation around teenagers and sex has referred to a teen pregnancy epidemic. This is misleading, especially considering that teens have the lowest rate of sexual activity and make up the smallest amount of pregnancies, abortions, and births. Most pregnancies reflected in “teen pregnancy” statistics are, in fact, adults at 18 and 19 years old. And pervasive abstinence-only environments in schools only preclude informed decision-making and informed sexual practices that would prevent negative outcomes, like unintended pregnancy or the occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases.
Dialogue that refers to a “pregnancy epidemic” and promotes abstinence without mention of effective birth control stigmatizes teens who are already mothers and can isolate those considering sexual activity from accessing resources that could be useful to them in making educated, safe decisions. This stigma is an ineffective mechanism for preventing unplanned pregnancy.
The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) has shown that teen pregnancy campaigns that rely on shame and stigma don’t work…NLIRH suggests that we should support policies that promote access to information and resources but only as “part of a platform to increase women’s ability to make informed choices that are relevant to their lives…”
Giving young people resources and education to allow them to make their own decisions about sex is what made California’s teen pregnancy and abortion rates drop dramatically from the 1990s to 2005. California is the only state never to have applied for a Title V grant that would have funded abstinence-only education. Instead, the state focused on implementing the California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Act while increasing teenagers’ access to family planning services.
California’s Family Planning, Access, Care, and Treatment (Family PACT) program “provides a package of contraceptive and related health services to at no cost to Californians…with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level.” Teens can enroll in the program based on their own income and are able to access services confidentially. In a 2006 study by Guttmacher Institute, California ranked first in “overall efforts to help women avoid unintended pregnancy,” thanks in part to this program and comprehensive sex education.
Johnson’s call for a change in discourse around sex and teenagers is part of the solution in making sure teens are making safe, responsible decisions. Instead of stigmatizing teens who do get pregnant and offering only abstinence as a way to avoid pregnancy, we should be offering young people information and resources to make informed choices. This is a more respectful, and ultimately more effective, way to address the issue. You can read Johnson’s full article here.