In spite of certain politicians and groups denouncing the value of comprehensive sex education in schools, the statistics don't lie: In California, the teenage pregnancy rate has decreased by 60% in the last 20 years.
The trend is heavily attributed to higher use of contraceptives by teenagers who have sex, something stressed heavily in comprehensive sex education that is not even covered in abstinence-only education. And because California requires medically accurate, comprehensive sex education be taught in public schools (even going so far as to outlaw abstinence-only education), it is no wonder that its teenage students are experiencing fewer unplanned pregnancies — accompanied by a nationwide decrease in abortions as well.
According to the California Department of Public Health's (CDPH) report, released Wednesday, the rate of teenage pregnancy fell in all ethnic groups. While the Hispanic teen birth rate is still the highest, at 42.7 births per 1,000 teens, this has dropped from a whopping 73.6 per 1,000 in 1991. These numbers for Hispanic teens also persist in spite of the number of Hispanic female teenagers rising the most of any other ethnic group in the last 20 years, from 477,270 to 662,968.
"California's innovative strategies and community partnerships aimed at lowering teen pregnancy are helping young women and men make responsible choices," said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the CDPH. "We must not be complacent; we must continue to promote teen pregnancy prevention programs and strategies in all communities."
In addition to in-school sex education, the CDPH's report cited community health education programs — such as those offered by Planned Parenthood, 70% of whose services include providing contraceptives and STD testing/treatment — as another major player in the decrease of teen pregnancy rates.
Unfortunately, several states still push forward abstinence-only sex education policies — or teach nothing at all — and the results of their complacency are reflected in their teenage pregnancy rates. For example, in 2008, New Mexico's teen pregnancy rate was the highest at 93 per 1,000, with only 60.5% of teenagers using contraceptives — compared to 75% nationally. Big surprise: New Mexico does not mandate a comprehensive sex education program, but instead stresses abstinence.
California's decline in teen pregnancy rates matches national trends, which come with some surprises. The proportion of teenagers having sex has in fact remained unchanged in the last 20 years, with the rise in contraceptive use accounting for lowered pregnancy rates. Teenagers are using contraception more often not only because of their sex education, but because many have access to more birth control methods (which is why the closing of community health clinics, something not happening in California, is detrimental to the health of those teenagers who are seeking less expensive contraception).
Essentially, three things must happen in order to continue this trend in all states:
1. Teach comprehensive, medically accurate sex education in all 50 states, stressing contraception, STDs, and abortion, and reminding students that abstinence is okay if they aren't ready to have sex.
2. Ensure that clinics providing these services — birth control and education alike — remain open so that teenagers and their families can easily access them.
3. Empower teenage parents, helping them balance finishing school with taking care of their children so they can make responsible decisions as they grow up in a society that is all too quick to shame them for their choices.
As long as we teach our teenagers everything they need to know about sexual activity and its results, we do not have to delude ourselves into thinking no one has sex until marriage or an "appropriate" age. When provided with the right tools, sexually active teenagers are completely capable of making responsible decisions with their own bodies.