Check the Numbers: Abstinence-Only Education Policies Are Failing Texas Families

by Dan Quinn

Advocates of abstinence-only education policies argue that keeping teens ignorant about condoms and other forms of birth control and disease prevention will solve the problem of teen pregnancy in Texas. They often point to data showing that the state’s teen birth rate has declined since 1991 even while most schools have been teaching abstinence-only instead of comprehensive sex education.

But they’re not telling the full story. The teen birth rate has been going down across the country, and much faster than in Texas. Just look at the numbers.

New data shows that California’s teen birth rate, for example, plummeted from 71 to just just under 29 births per 1,000 teen girls between 1991 and 2011. Unlike in Texas, California schools teach comprehensive sex education. From the Los Angeles Times:

Public health experts say state laws are responsible for the decline because they require public schools that offer sex education classes to provide scientifically reliable instructions on how contraceptives work along with information about abstinence.

Reproductive health planning projects like the California Personal Responsibility Education Program are also credited with the lower numbers.

“We do believe that our programs are behind these numbers,” said Karen Ramstrom, the chief of the program standards branch at the California Department of Public Health’s maternal child and adolescent health division.

Actually, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy notes that California’s teen birth rate in 1991 was 74 per 1,000 teen girls. The teen birth rate in Texas was only a little higher: 79. Since then, the Texas teen birth rate hasn’t fallen nearly as fast as in California and was, at nearly 47 in 2011, much higher than California’s rate of nearly 29.

What’s going on? The teen birth rate across the country has been falling as more teens delay sex or use birth control when they do have sex. On the other hand, Texas schools largely focus on simply telling teens to abstain from sex until marriage (or telling them nothing at all). Moreover, abstinence-only programs are often filled with wildly inaccurate and misleading information about birth control (and other things), as the TFN Education Fund’s reports on sex education in Texas public schools have shown.

Religious-right activists’ insistence on abstinence-only education policies in Texas simply makes no sense, and parents know it. In fact, a February 2013 poll from the TFN Education Fund showed that 84 percent of registered voters in Texas support teaching about birth control as well as abstinence in sex education classes.

Fortunately, TFN and our coalition partners stopped bills in the 2013 legislative session that would have made teaching responsible and effective sex education even harder for Texas schools. But too many Texas lawmakers are still way out of step with common sense and public opinion. Some even argue that sex education gets teens so “hot and bothered” that they can’t wait to jump in the sack with each other. Others seem to think sex education is a communist plot. Good grief.

The numbers show that making sure high school sex education classes provide medically accurate information on birth control along with emphasizing abstinence is important to solving the teen pregnancy crisis. Abstinence-only policies simply won’t do the job.

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