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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