The Jamie Lynn Generation

The Spears family, it's safe to say, is shocked by very little these days, not with Britney in every tabloid. Still the recent news seemed to shock them. Their 16 year-old daughter, Jamie Lynn, the daughter on whom the family now seemed to pin their hopes, is pregnant. And while no bad news is unprofitable for the Spears (it is rumored Jamie Lynn was paid one million dollars to break the news in OK! Magazine), the family does appear to be shaken. ("I was in shock. I mean, this is my 16-year-old baby," said her mother.) It seems that no matter how well-to-do (or bizarre) the family, it's always a tragedy to have one's child's adolescence taken away by pregnancy. Jamie Lynn Spears is not your average teen, of course. (Millions await the first baby photos in some magazine.) But her situation is becoming a more common experience for many girls of her generation: premature parenthood.

A Center for Disease Control report released this month reveals that in 2006 there was a dramatic rise in teen births among 15-19 year olds in the United States bringing to a grinding halt a steady 14-year decline. In fact, we are witnessing the reversal of many positive trends that began in the nineties. Along with the dramatic decline in teen birth rates, the nineties brought a steep drop in abortion and unwanted pregnancy rates. Even sexual activity among high school students declined significantly in the nineties and teens who were having sex (as on average, 50% will before graduating high school) were also using protection more. Now these trends are slowing or reversing. Sadly, these reversals seemed inevitable. After all, the 2000s have turned away from every strategy that the nineties proved was effective.

In fact, Jamie Lynn Spears and her pregnant peers are the victims of a one and half billion dollar social experiment: the national implementation of the abstinence until marriage policy. For the duration of the Bush administration, the policy of preference is to simply tell teens not to have sex before marriage. Like the Just Say No to drugs campaigns of the Reagan years, it too has been a colossal failure. Abstinence-only programs have not succeeded in convincing kids not to have sex, but have led many not to use contraception. To scare kids kids away sexual activity, abstinence-only programs focus on the dangers of sex. If contraception is ever mentioned it is to highlight (and exaggerate) its failure rates. If a girl is told that even if her boyfriend uses a condom she'll get pregnant once every seven times -as the popular abstinence program "Choosing the Best Way" instructs-the incentive to use one dissipates.

Those promoting abstinence-only, mainly religious political groups, say parents should have the right to teach children according to their beliefs. What the same groups fail to mention is that the vast majority of parents (93%) want their teens taught comprehensive sex ed, including accurate information about protection from pregnancy and disease . If there is a prevailing belief among parents it is decidedly anti-abstinence-only education. They're in good company too: All mainstream organizations of health professionals that deal with young people strongly criticize federal support for current abstinence programs. These include the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine. In a letter to Congressional leaders last month, ten of the top experts in the fields of adolescent sexual and reproductive health advised Congress to completely de-fund abstinence-only programs because of "key problems with abstinence-only education including the withholding of potentially life-saving information from youth."

The toll of withholding potentially life-saving information is becoming tragically evident. In the states where the abstinence-only approach is more likely to be used disease is up. School districts in the south are five times more likely than in the northeast to teach only abstinence. Today, the southern states have the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS infections, the highest rate of STDs, as well as the highest rate of teen births. While over the past decade other regions have made major strides in decreasing or stagnating HIV infection rates, according to the CDC, the South accounts for 45 percent of all new cases.

Teens need accurate information to make important life decisions. Many states legislatures and executives are realizing that instilling ignorance about sex and protection in our teens is the real moral violation. To date, fifteen states have refused federal money for abstinence-only funding. Parents in the remaining 35 states must demand that their governors and statehouses reject federal grants for these ineffective and dangerous programs too. It's the only time just saying no might actually work.

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