Sellers: A Sex Ed Reality Check

by Emily Sellers | 11/11/12 11:00pm

We all know that teen pregnancy is a problem. But for most of us, it is a far-off threat, one that is confined to the glow of MTV's "Teen Mom" on Tuesday nights. The idea of being a mother or father at this point in life or earlier is, for many of us, a distant concern. My typical reaction when Facebook shows me yet another girl from my high school sporting a baby bump is either a sigh or a passing thought of condolence. Personally, it is difficult to imagine toting around a crying, miniature me on my hip, especially since I find it hard enough to take care of myself each day. However, with recent attacks on Planned Parenthood and its contraceptive services and the prevalence of abstinence-only sex education in public schools, my high school classmates' situations and the country's financial concerns are inextricably linked.

Which costs more: birth control pills, or a tiny, fully dependent human raised to adulthood? As it turns out, birth control is a tad more cost effective, by about $226,000. And which is more effective in preventing teen pregnancy: access to birth control, or telling hormone-laden teens "just don't do it" "Mean Girls"-style? Again, the answer is not surprising. New Hampshire boasts one of the country's lowest teen birth rates, with just 16 births per 1000 women aged 15 to 19. Compare this to New Mexico, one of the country's highest teen birth rates, at 62 births per 1,000 teenage girls. As common sense would imply, New Hampshire requires a comprehensive sex education course in schools. Though it includes abstinence, it does not focus on it entirely, like in many more conservative states. New Mexico requires no sex education, and other states with similarly high birth rates (such as Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi) stress an abstinence-only approach. These costs aren't confined to the parents or families of these children of teen parents. Each publicly financed unplanned pregnancy costs an average of $10,000. American taxpayers spend approximately $11 billion per year on medical care for the 1.25 million unintended pregnancies through programs like Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Thinking back to middle school and my experience with Tennessee's abstinence-only sex education program, it seems less and less shocking that so many girls from my high school had children so young. It makes me wonder what would have happened if these teen parents and teen parents from the other 25 states that require abstinence be stressed as the best method of pregnancy prevention had access not only to contraception, but also to knowledge of all preventative measures. A study conducted by the University of Washington explores that hypothetical: Teens that received a comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to become pregnant. Not only that, but a 2007 federal report showed that abstinence-only approaches, like the one I received in Tennessee, had "no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence." To put it simply, it's not working, and that sort of Puritan approach hurts young girls, burdening them (and taxpayers) with the heavy financial cost a child brings.

This is why Planned Parenthood and realistic sex education are so important. In a 2008 study, the Guttmacher Institute estimated that for every $1 spent on family planning services, groups like Planned Parenthood save taxpayers $3.74 in government spending on health care before and in the year after the baby is born. Realistic sex education which explains all methods of contraception, their efficacy and how to purchase them gives young people the power to choose their fate and costs no more than the unsuccessful abstinence-only approach. Simply abandoning ineffective education methods in favor of a more reasonable policy can reduce teen pregnancies and their subsequent impact on society. It's not fair that the students in my high school were less informed and able to make smart decisions about their sex lives just because of the values of the communities in which they grew up, just as it's unfair that Planned Parenthood funding is being cut in those same states. Geography should not dictate one's ability to control one's sex life and prevent an unintended birth, nor should conservative states force that financial burden on the rest of the country.