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Decline in teen pregnancies is good but not enough

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In these times of war, special counsels and political lies, we search for really good news where ever. Here’s one with a caveat or two: the dramatic decline in teenage pregnancy and births over the last 30 years.

Both government surveys and the Guttmacher Institute report a sharp drop in teen pregnancy. This reflects, experts say, a huge increase in sex education and in the use of effective contraceptives.

“We have seen tremendous progress as young people get better information,” says Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, CEO of “Power to Decide,” a non-partisan non-profit that for a quarter century has been in the forefront of this educational effort. (It was known as the “Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy,” until the name was changed a few years ago to reflect expanding its charge to protection of abortion rights.)

We still have a way to go; we need national standards for sex education — why should a 15-year-old in Mississippi have less information than a teen in California? — and there still are too many inequities for teens of color and/or poor. “But we know how do it,” notes Dr. McDonald-Mosley, who is an obstetrician.

America has come a long way since President Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union address, declared teen pregnancy a moral problem: one of the seven great challenges facing the country.

Today there is overwhelming support both for teaching sex education to teenagers in public schools and for easy access to the best birth control.

Groups like Power to Decide and state, local and federal governments have effectively disseminated information. Slightly fewer teenage girls are engaged in sex, and those that do are using more effective protections like intrauterine devices and contraceptive implants.

One key to success is going where the teenagers are: social media, entertainment, teen magazines, movies. Power to Decide has partnered with MTV, teen magazines, the TLC music to promote safe sex.

For all the progress, there could be more but for the resistance from some conservative circles. There still are numerous states that focus sex education on abstinence only, the ‘just say no’ approach.

Study after study shows these programs don’t work. They “disguise abstinence-only messaging as ‘sexual risk avoidance’ and deny young people necessary and even life-saving information about their own bodies, reproductive health and sexuality,” the Guttmacher Institute reports, concluding abstinence-only sex education is “harmful and ineffective.” The Kaiser Family Foundation reached the same conclusion.

And pushing further on sex education likely will become embroiled in the current fight over parental participation in a high schooler’s education. Certainly, it’s better that parents be involved in their child’s sex education; usually they are. There are, however, exceptions — and most important is getting young people the best information.

Before the hard right turn of the Republican party, this was a bi-partisan issue. A driving force of the “Campaign To End Teen Pregnancy” was Tom Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. His son was just elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, though he waffled a bit on the issue during the campaign. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), in her second term, has called on Republicans to focus more on birth control and less on abortion.

There’s a need for more Republicans like Mace and Gov. Kean.

More needs to be done. The rate of teen pregnancy still is too high, especially for non-whites where the rate is almost twice as high. Although the data is a little old, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate remains higher than that of most other advanced countries.

Government needs to step up more effectively. States should eliminate abstinence-only sex education programs that don’t work. On the federal level, there are effective measures, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program or TPPP and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) that provide useful research and comparative analysis on the effectiveness of sex education programs. They deserve a hefty increase in funding.

Although this will be met with fierce resistance, there should be, as Dr. McDonald-Mosley advocates, national standards for sex education and access to the best birth control.

This is not principally a state’s rights or budgetary issue. It’s a moral issue about investment in human capital of the future.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Abstinence-only sex education Birth control Nancy Mace Sex Ed Sex education in the United States Sexual abstinence teen pregnancy Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program Teenage pregnancy teenagers teens Tom Kean

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