Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Have Not Reduced Teen Pregnancy

Time and time again, we hear from high school students saying the sex education they receive is inadequate, it comes too late, and it does not teach them the skills they need to act responsibly.
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It's about time we make the well-being of our young people more important than ideology and politics. As a country, we benefit from investing in their future by investing in teen pregnancy prevention. Our youth deserve the opportunity to complete their high school and college education, free of early parenthood. Their future children deserve the opportunity to grow up in financially and emotionally stable homes. Our communities benefit from healthy, productive, well-prepared young people.

We can make a difference by advocating for effective sex education. The Title V funding for abstinence-only programs is up for reauthorization by Congress. Since 1982, the US government has allocated $3.6 billion to abstinence only-until-marriage programs and has received a dismal return on its investment. And not surprisingly--these programs have very little evidence of effectiveness. Mathematica Policy Research conducted a national evaluation of abstinence-only programs and its findings show abstinence-only programs have no beneficial impact on whether young people abstain from sex, delay sexual activity, or reduce the number of sexual partners. This lack of evidence demands we take a different approach to sexual health education. The US has the highest teen birth rate of all industrialized nations at 41.9 per 1,000 girls age 15-19. By comparison, the next closest country is the United Kingdom at 26.7 per 1,000.

In my home state of Georgia, the state government has received $22.4 million in Federal funding for abstinence-only programs over the last two years. Georgia's spending on abstinence-only programs is two times the amount of funds just approved by the state legislature for funding teen centers, which provide critical services including prevention education, counseling, and services for sexually active youth.

Georgia ranks 10th nationally in teen birth rates at 54.2 per 1,000 girls age 15-19. Georgia is 2nd in repeat pregnancies, 6th in Chlamydia, 5th in Gonorrhea, 3rd in Syphilis and 9th in AIDS cases. All tolled, abstinence-only education, as a program to safeguard young people from high-risk behavior that leads to unintended outcomes, has failed miserably. The persistent status of Georgia among the top 10 worst states for reproductive and sexual health outcomes in teens illustrates the shortcomings of a policy that insists on teaching abstinence-only until marriage as the core sex education strategy.

In 1995, when Georgia had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the US, I founded The Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP). G-CAPP brings together community and school leaders, health officials, and students to advocate for age appropriate, evidence-based sex education curricula within local schools and federal policy to fund comprehensive sex education programs.

Our young people are clamoring for sex education. Time and time again, we hear from high school students saying the sex education they receive is inadequate, it comes too late, and it does not teach them the skills they need to act responsibly.

In Savannah, Georgia, where the teen pregnancy rates are more than double the US rates, three teens are fighting to replace the harmful abstinence-only-until marriage program "Choosing the Best" in their school district with comprehensive sex education. They are rightfully concerned that their school district has signed on for five more years of the same ineffective curriculum.

G-CAPP is working with 30 youth from around the state to get their voices heard. The Georgia Student Youth Leadership Council (SYLC) is a group of dynamic young people who are actively engaged in mobilizing other youth advocates to bring attention to the need for better sex education. Our work is part of a collective movement in the Southeast region, which has the highest rate of teen pregnancy. In Mississippi, the House adopted HB 808 which would require comprehensive sex education to be taught in grades K through 12. The bill died in the Senate, but a major victory nonetheless. In North Carolina, HB 88 would require schools to offer both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education giving parents the ability to decide which program their child would participate in. The bill is expected to go before the House for a vote. In Texas, a recent report showing the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs stated "our schools are failing Texas families by turning out generations of sexually illiterate young people at a time of high rates of teen pregnancy and STDs." In Florida, SIECUS released a similar report.

The past administrations have wasted opportunities to use our government resources to teach our young people how to make good decisions about their health. It is time to we advocate for policies and programs capable of addressing the root causes of adolescent pregnancy and teach our young people the skills they need to live healthy, productive lives. Our future depends on it.

Right now we have a great opportunity to ensure that our government use our resources wisely, by asking Congress to zero out Title V funding and support the REAL Act. This act will allow states to receive funding to implement effective sex education programs that give our young people the tools to make informed decisions about their well-being and build healthy relationships. I know our young people will be prepared to stand up and speak out, will you?

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