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Teen Pregnancy Is Down, But Is Morality Up?

A December 23, 2003 New York Times headline declaring “More Teenagers Say No To Sex” is certainly good news, as is the accompanying article explaining how teen births have dropped to historic lows—as much as 40% over the past decade in the case of African-American youth.

Even better, abortions among adolescents are decreasing as well. With both these indicators, experts are convinced teen pregnancies are on the decline. Now the question is “Why?”

Asking that creates a confrontation rivaling the best boxing matches in Madison Square Garden. In one corner sits organizations like The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). In the other are fighters like Leslee Unruh, president and founder of The Abstinence Clearinghouse.

SIECUS claims the lower numbers are a result of teaching teens elementary condom usage. However, when I spoke with Unruh about that conclusion, she came out swinging.

“We have our own evaluations and data that prove the declining teen births are a result of abstinence education,” she attests, adding in areas where the “latex” promoters are most visible there are higher teen pregnancy rates.

Even more enlightening is Unruh’s personal observation. She feels when mixed messages of “safe sex” and abstinence are presented, the majority of teens recognize the conflicting communications and gravitate toward the more conservative choice of saying “No” to sex before marriage.

“We’re seeing the new teen standard as who is not ‘doing it’ and standing up and being stronger. Five years ago, if you were a virgin you were whispering it. Now you can stand up and declare it,” says Unruh.

Located in Souix Falls, South Dakota, The Abstinence Clearinghouse is having an impact across the United States, and in other countries. Its mandate is to act as a central one-stop-shop for educators, parents, and other interested community members looking to access curriculum, speakers, and other materials.

But the “just say no” people have another definite advantage in their corner. In 1996 the federal government began using tax dollars to fund curriculum that exclusively teaches abstinence. That has given rise to the number of schools promoting the idea teens should wait.

Round two opens with The National Education Association (NEA – which subscribes to SIECUS’ mantra), saying it’s the millions in federal funds -- not moral commitment, which has so many educational administrations signing up for the sex after marriage approach. The NEA is also concerned our children’s health is being put at risk when students decide to have sex anyway, yet are not aware of contraception methods. Groups like SIECUS would concur, believing it’s unrealistic to expect teens not to have sex—a conviction that becomes even stronger when the age group is extended to include unmarried adults.

Throwing a worthy left hook, the educators testify that promoting abstinence is causing distress for teachers who are “bound by strict rules prohibiting any discussion of contraception or AIDS prevention” (quoting from their website of www.nea.org, page http://www.nea.org/neatoday/0304/health.html).

But why are teachers saddled with this in the first place? The NEA claims in a “recent survey” that 80% of parents indicated they feel schools are better equipped to teach their children to use contraception and to know how to negotiate contraceptive use with future partners.

For me, that is the real crisis: the day fathers and mothers stepped out of the ring, convinced they weren’t smart enough to talk to their kids about sex. Unlike math, language arts, or wood shop, sex has values and deep personal roots attached to it. Schools can’t teach moral values, but is it possible to teach sex without them?

Wait a minute, you say. Didn’t we start this column with the great news that teens aren’t having as many babies? Who cares if abstinence or safe sex education plans are working? The bottom line is fewer teens are getting pregnant.

True enough, but there is more to consider then just the simple teen birth barometer. Thanks to Bill Clinton and a society constantly in pursuit of sexual utopia, our teens (and younger children) are living in a cultural sea of erotica. There has been a pronounced increase in alternative sexual behavior portrayed in media over the past few years—often involving teen characters. Oral sex, homosexuality, and every other form of stimulation are depicted as after-school fun, even in PG-13 movies.

I believe young people are beginning to get the message regarding the dangers of intercourse, but I’m not convinced they have given up on sex completely. Pregnancies may be down, but is sexual morality up?

Only in our homes do we have the real freedom to help our children understand all of the costs associated with active sexuality. I’m impressed to discover the abstinence curriculum specifies the need to refrain from other sexual activities besides intercourse, but our youth need a much more powerful example than a teacher—they need to hear it from a person who packs a real punch—their parents.

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