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Preaching Abstinence

In a rare moment of consensus and civility in mid-campaign, Democratic and Republican leaders concurred last week that public debate over the candidates’ family troubles — specifically the pregnant, unwed 17-year-old daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — is “off-limits,” in Barack Obama’s words. Families, even public families, should be left to sort out their private lives in privacy. Democrats come to this privacy notion easily; they’ve been trying to make that point for years.

As for the Republicans, they have every reason to want their embarrassments kept off the front page. Their party has been preaching for decades that single motherhood reflects a character flaw. They’re wedded to the notion that the government should stop giving handouts to single moms. Now they are attacking Democrats for, of all things, lacking sympathy for a family in turmoil.

In the end, both parties are wrong. The Palin pregnancy is a genuinely important political event, and it should be debated. It’s not that the Palins, parent or child, deserve punishment. What makes this an important public issue is the light that it sheds on government health policies, which are often based on religious beliefs rather than on science. Simply put, the policies that Sarah Palin champions, as a standard-bearer of the Christian right, do not work. No one should know that better right now than Palin herself.

The Christian right has been preaching for decades that teenage premarital sex is a social crisis with terrible effects, including pregnancy and disease, and must be stopped. Successive Republican administrations have mandated the teaching of abstinence — rather than birth control methods — in any public medical and educational programs they can reach. They’re required to teach chastity as the way to avoid the consequences of sex. But it doesn’t work. The kids are having sex anyway, but without the tools to do it safely.

Several recent studies show how badly Americans suffer as a result. One report, issued this past May by the federal Centers for Disease Control, says that a staggering one-third of American girls get pregnant by age 20. Eighty percent of the pregnancies are unintended. Teenagers who have babies can expect a decline in “their future prospects and those of their children.” They are less likely to finish high school than other teens, more likely to live in poverty, and less likely to receive prenatal care, to gain proper weight and to deliver healthy babies.

Even grimmer, the government report goes on to say that the United States has the second highest rate of teen pregnancy and teen birth in the developed world. This despite the fact that teen sexual activity — the age at which it begins and the frequency — appears to be about the same here as in the other countries. The difference, the report says, seems to be that American teens “are less likely to use contraception or to consistently use more effective methods of contraception when compared to the teens of several other developed countries.”

The report doesn’t say so, but other studies in the past have pointed out that American policies on sex education and contraception access differ dramatically from other developed countries. We preach abstinence, while most others rely on sex education and birth control.

The report doesn’t quantify America’s differences, but it refers readers to an earlier study, conducted by the privately run Guttmacher Institute, on which it based its international comparisons.

It turns out that the United States isn’t sitting respectably at the high end of a continuous scale. America stands nearly alone, amid a handful of poor ex-communist states in Eastern Europe, including Armenia, Moldova, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Even in that group, we’re at the high end with a rate of 83.6 teen pregnancies per 1,000, topped only by Russia at 102 per 1,000. Behind us is a cluster of mostly English-speaking countries, including England, Canada and Australia, where teen pregnancy runs at about 44 per 1,000, or about half the American rate. Finally, most of Western Europe runs along a spectrum ranging from 27 per 1,000 (Israel, Sweden) to a low of 12 (Spain, Italy, the Netherlands).

It isn’t race or immigration, the report says. American whites may have a lower rate than minorities, but even counted by themselves they’re still close to the top of the list. It’s also true that pregnancy rates have gone down worldwide over the past decade, but America’s rate of decline has been slower than that of most other countries, broadening the gap between us and most everyone else.

Governor Palin is confronting a truth that public health researchers have spent decades proving: that good parenting and religious faith won’t stop kids from going out and getting pregnant. They need technology, and honest explanations of how to use it. If the candidate used this life crisis to open her eyes and understand what really happened, she could do her country and other families a great service.


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