Teen pregnancy prevention: it’s time to recognize the failure of abstinence-only programs

Candice Nordine, Executive Director of Project SIGHT (Strengthening Identity and Growing in Hope Together), had a letter in last week’s Nfld News. It includes:

candice nordineBristol Palin is fortunate to have her family’s support… Unfortunately, not enough attention is  given to the public policies that support these families or for programs for effective pregnancy prevention. This year alone, more than $200 million will be spent on federally subsidized abstinence-only programs — programs that show no evidence of working. Programs that do work are under-funded and do not get the wide spread support they deserve.

Since 2006, the rates of teen pregnancies in the U.S. have shown the first increase in 16 years, after a steady longtime decrease. This comes at a time when abstinence-only funding also increased and the requirements for using the funds became more stringent towards “abstinence-until-marriage” language.

Project SIGHT (“the only teen pregnancy prevention program in Rice County”) is funded by the United Way.

82 thoughts on “Teen pregnancy prevention: it’s time to recognize the failure of abstinence-only programs”

  1. AnneB: Thanks for the compliment way back in #24. You’re always welcome back. There are parishes like St. Joan of Arc in Mpls where “faithful dissent” is not only accepted, but even — dare I say it? — trendy.

  2. Rob: re: your post #49 …”many of us have difficulty understanding the values of others, and engaging in productive public discussions around value laden issues”.

    Key word: productive.

    Can you possibly clone yourself for the school board seats?

    What you have said is the essence of the point of PUBLIC discussion; i.e. that we all learn from one another, rather than continue to hold “party lines” without even considering the other’s viewpoint. Then after a period of listening, everyone is free to debate their case. The problem comes, when holding to what I call “party lines” infringes on others’ basic rights.

    And then what comes next, is the kind of horrendous name calling, labeling, demeaning comments, and ( Yes, Griff) intense sarcasm, that has been ongoing on the presidential election thread. It is more expected there because of the intense partisan nature of this never-ending campaign cycle,
    but this discussion was supposed to be about education, albeit on difficult subject matter.

    No one has to allow their child to participate in a class that violates their parental privilege. Holly made that clear way back a ways.

    So, what is the matter with offering ALL the pertinent factual information … as is a perceived goal in english, math, science, history … and letting these developing teen minds ask questions, sort it out, be advised by their parents … as we would in any other area of information/education?

    We must be careful of tailoring information provided in schools to a particular set of values, rather than fact: scientific, or historic, or grammatical; whatever.

    And then, as parents, we all know teens make their own choices, not always the best, but OFTEN “the best” for them, and that is how they learn.

    We, as parents, have to make sure we have tried to be the best possible guides, true to our own core morals/beliefs; trying to create a new generation that will function for what we believe is the common good.

    When information is selectively delivered, then it is propaganda, not information, and runs the risk of perverting the true process of education, and in some cases, even basic human rights.

    If I was a teen in health classes that provided only selective information, I would be saying: “Keep your “rights” off my Rights!”

  3. Kiffi- Your comment, “…When information is selectively delivered, then it is propaganda,…” is probably one of the greatest challenges in any form of education, especially when it comes to any subject with “subjective” personal evaluations of situations, as oposed to an objective subject, as , say, math, where 2+2 always equals 4. One of my greatest concerns when my children were in school was being involved in their education. The reports I have gotten back from my own kids who now teach is the growing lack of parental involvement in their children’s education, and, possibly, their lives. An opinion I have is that this is a predeliction of our society to always trust “experts” in a field. I think it is commendable that there are people who specialize in various disciplines, especially medicine. But, when we parents pass off the responsibility for this “difficult” subject to the “experts” without our own involvement in our young people’s lives, I think we are asking for trouble. Someone must make a “selective” decision of what is going to be taught and how. I think this process fits your propaganda definition above. That is why I’m not sure there can be a completely comprehensive sex education curriculum without the positive and active involvement of the parents.

    Just a brainstorming thought, here, but perhaps the whole sex education curriculum should be removed from the public school setting and done, with required involvement of the parents, in a community education setting. Perhaps it is not the educators who are failing so much as the parents. I’m sure this would be uncomfortable for some, but so is a surprise pregnancy for a young person. And, I think it would be good for some parents to be shaken out of their comfort zone. I suppose, because of professional responsibilities of the parents, it would not work, but it is food for thought.

  4. Rob: I agree that it is difficult to have productive public discussions regarding value-laden issues. That is why I brought up the point that if having sex and having a child are the teen’s decision, then whether or not to use contraception should also be the teen’s decision. Don’t we impose our values on the teen if we tell them they must use contraception if they have sex?

    When we give teens all the information and choices, but don’t give them rules and principles (and the exceptions) to help them guide their choices, how are they suppose to know what is the best choice? I think that we do our children a grave disservice by implying that there is no best choice, or that each teen has to decide for himself or herself.

    In my opinion, abstinence-only sex education teaches the right rule – don’t have sex. But, it offers no rules beyond that. “Contraception-only” teaches the right rule – if you are going to violate the first rule, then follow this rule. When the first and second rule are violated, current sex education stops.

    Why not teach teens about how the fetus develops, when its heart begins to beat, and all other fetal development information so that they can make a more informed choice about whether or not to birth the child? Why not tell them that the Supreme Court has determined that the fetus doesn’t have any legal rights, and how the Supreme Court came to that decision? Why not teach them the difference between the “biological human” and the “legal human”?

  5. Oops! I forgot to reference one of Rob’s comments in post #49, “…it’s difficult to talk about issues like sex, pregnancy, contraception, and abortion without bringing our values to the discussion…” Now, here is realist I can identify with. Sex education is not just biology. It does involve moral decisions. I agree with you, Kiffi, about cloning him for, not only the school board, but several other levels of public service, also. Be careful, Rob. You’ll get worked to death!

  6. John George,

    Your zinger (#48) comes right out of the Pro-Birther’s Little Book of Clichés.

    I’m sure my poor mother has considered me an inconvenience on several occasions– this writing quite possibly among them. However, as my parents were 23- year-old university graduates; married for two years and out of high school for five at the time of my birth, I can’t see that your comment regarding the circumstances of my birth has any relevance to the present discussion of preventing teenage pregnancy.

  7. David (#55): I have no objection to having as full and informed a conversation as possible, bringing in science, law, history, values and beliefs. We need to learn how to have these complex conversations without automatically going on the defensive and retreating behind partisan talking points that don’t advance the conversation.

    Let’s talk about Roe v. Wade. Let’s talk about the ancient English common law position (accepted even by the Catholic Church until 1869) that life began at “quickening,” when the mother could feel the movement of the child in her womb. Let’s talk about how technology (i.e., ultrasound) has changed this conception of “quickening.”

    Take note of the fact that the common law concept of “quickening” was based on a woman’s experience of her own body, whereas the idea that life begins earlier in the first trimester is based upon technology in the hands of the traditionally male-dominated medical profession. I think I can feel you bristling at this. But feminism has to be part of the conversation, too. It is, after all, a conversation about women’s bodies.

    I remember, at thirteen, being filled with an overwhelming sense of awe at the ability God have given me to create a new life. I was quite a religious teen. I realized that this unasked for gift brought with it an enormous responsibility. We need to make sure that all boys, Christian or not, feel this sense of responsibility for the life that they can help to create.

  8. Nathan- I feel the same way about your comment in #46. That is your opinion and you have the freedom to express it. My commen (“zinger?”) in #49 is my opinion, and I have just as much right to express it. I think the attitude you expressed in your posts is one that David and I run across quite often when we try to discuss these issues. It comes through as, and these are my own words to describe it, an attitude that how could we possibly have a different perspective than you and how could we have the audacity to express it. I think Rob has the most balanced evaluation of how these discussions when he said, “…that it’s difficult to talk about issues like sex, pregnancy, contraception, and abortion without bringing our values to the discussion…” I’m sorry if my opinions offend you, but you need to realize there are other opinions out there that are differnt than yours, and, depending on how you evaluate it, not necessarily better. If I expressed my opinion in an offensive way, then let me know. I am always open to improving my communication skills.

  9. Rob: I didn’t mean to imply that I only agreed with the partisanship part of your post. I agreed with your whole post.

    But, realistically, do you think that current sex education is teaching about the new discoveries of technology, and the concept of quickening? Do you really think that teens are being taught about the awe of creation and the tremendous responsibility that comes with sex?

    My impression is that most adults think that sex education should be teaching contraception control – no more and no less. In fact, the measurement tool referenced by Ms. Nordine is the rate of teen pregnancies. Perhaps those pregnancies were the result of, and a desire to, birth a child. Wouldn’t a better measurement of the effectiveness of sex education be the number of pregnancies terminated by abortion? Those are the pregnancies that are “unwanted”, and can rightly be considered “failures” of education.

    I have read that teens decide to birth their children at a much greater rate than more mature adults. Doesn’t that imply that more mature adults, and not teens, may need greater sex education, especially in the area of awe and responsibility?

  10. David L.- You said, “…I have read that teens decide to birth their children at a much greater rate than more mature adults…” Do you have any documentation on that? If so, it would appear to back up my assertion that the majority of the 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade were done for convenience rather than dire economic needs. Just wondering. I have not been able to find a comparison by age group that is any newer that 1994. I did find some information that the largest percantage, 38%, of abortions are performed for women with annual incomes between $30,000 and $60,000, so it appears that poverty is not necessarily a motivator. Also, 64%+ are done for women who have never been married. This may just indicate the popularity of couples just living together without a legal marriage license, though. Here is the link for those stats:


    There are some more interesting and more current statistics on this link, also:


    One encouraging statistic is that the total number of abortions has steadily declined over the last 8 years.

  11. David: No doubt that some teens plan their pregnancies, although I suspect that most do not. Whatever the case, they should be equipped to make responsible decisions about sex and reproduction. If they decide to have the child, they should have access to all the support they need, including regular prenatal care. If, as a last resort to terminate the pregnancy, they choose abortion, it should be safe (i.e., legal). But, before it comes to that, teens—girls and boys—should have all the facts, should understand their responsibilities, and should—yes—have a respect for life. Abortion should still be a choice, but a rare one, undertaken with a full appreciation for what’s involved, both medically and morally.

    If we want to promote a “culture of life,” we should not only try to reduce as far as possible the number of abortions performed, we should also make sure that mothers and babies have access to adequate health care, and we should make sure that children have a healthy environment in which to live. For most unborn children, toxins in the environment—some of which reach even into the womb—are a greater danger than abortion. Climate change, economic instability, and violence are much greater threats to life.

    I am in awe of human life, but I am also in awe of the fact that we share so much genetic material with other, non-human life on the planet—that all life is interrelated, and deserving of our care and respect. For some people, it’s a leap of the imagination to think of an eight-celled embryo as life. We need to make an even greater leap of the imagination, to seeing the interconnectedness of all life and understanding our responsibility for lives other than our own.

  12. Helene, You are absolutely right, of course. But I hope I have been careful to say (a) that women should have the right as well as the responsibility to make decisions regarding their own bodies, and (b) that men also have responsibilities when it comes to sex and reproduction. Please join the conversation.

  13. Helene- As a father of four daughters, I feel it is definitely my responsibilty and priveledge to discuss this topic. Even though they are grown and married, I have a relationship with each of them that could be of some help to another father who is struggling to measure up. I echo Rob’s invitation to join the discussion.

  14. Helene, I’m tired of women telling men they have no say, when women can decide whether or not a man has a child, whether he has to pay child support or gets visitation — and in some cases can have a man raise a child only to find out after 10 or 20 years that it was never his at all.
    My point is that men and women have to work together on these issues, with the focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies rather than arguing over the consequences of them.
    I think the opinions here have been thoughtful, even the ones I don’t share.
    I really am torn over the support for unwed mothers. Giving so much support in housing and services encourages women see motherhood as a way to avoid the hard work of finishing college, getting a job and becoming self-sufficient.
    I don’t want girls punished, but there has to be accountability for both the mother and father every step of the way. The boy must be identified and held accountable, attending the parenting classes and taking responsibility for his child, whether or not the young parents marry.
    I think NBC did a great service with its series “The Baby Borrowers,” where young couples planning marriage were given babies, toddlers and children to practice their parenting skills. All the couples changed their minds, broke up and decided to postpone parenthood.
    I think all teens should have experience caring for children at some point, just to learn the hard work involved. One long weekend would be pretty effective in teaching the importance of responsible decisions.

  15. Rob: I can’t imagine that anyone disagrees that teens should be taught how to make responsible decisions about sex. The dispute seems to center upon the definition of “responsible” decisions.

    I agree that the government (we as a group) should not pass laws and set rigid rules governing sexual behavior. Of course, when the sexual behavior causes demonstrable harm to another, the government has a duty to impose its will on the aggressors. However, the law provides little guidance on what is “responsible”.

    So, when you speak of making responsible decisions, I can’t see how you can avoid making judgmental, i.e. moral, decisions.

    Is it preferable that teens abstain from premarital sex? Yes, we have the disease and pregnancy data to prove it. Is it preferable that teens use birth control if they have premarital sex? Yes. We have the data to prove it. Is contraception a substitute for abstaining? No. We have the data to prove it. Is birth preferable to abortion? Yes. When isn’t life preferable to death? Who in their right mind wishes that he/she had been aborted?

    That does not mean that government should take away our freedoms without a substantial and compelling reason. Legislative attempts to limit sexual freedoms have not only proven to be ineffective, but also harmful.

    I think it would be very helpful for our children to have a concrete understanding that the “moral codes” that have developed around sexual freedoms are not willy-nilly rules invented for the purpose of restricting their freedoms; they are rules borne of experience and reason designed to warn of the dangers that await those who choose to stray from the path.

    Sure, we want to educate kids about sex. Why wouldn’t that involve giving them our best judgment about what is responsible and irresponsible? Surely, if we are educating them, we know better than they, don’t we?

  16. You’re right, Helene, but how easily they slip into the role of pontificating about what should be ….
    Rob , you have with your discussion, thoughtful and respectful discussion, proved what will be the efficacy of your role if you are elected to the school board, which I hope will happen.
    Everyone (all you men) are entitled to your opinion, but in the end the woman is the “vessel”, the “host”, the one whose body has undergone major dramatic changes for the better part of a year, and then… sometimes in a life threatening situation… but more often in an exquisitely amazing moment … provides an entry to the world we live in.
    I am not suggesting men do not have a vital and engaged emotional role in this process; I am suggesting that in the end, it IS the woman’s body, and her choice alone, unless she chooses to share it.

    There simply is NO parallel process for a man, and that is why in the end, you need to respect our choices. Work as hard as you want for what can only be your preferences, but never your choices.

  17. Thanks, Kiffi. If you have a little spare time to read it, here is an essay of mine that was published in the mothering magazine, Brain, Child. In humorous terms, I hope, it addresses your comment about the uniqueness of the the woman’s experience of pregnancy.

  18. Rob : re: the essay you link to in#70.. Beautiful, funny, and oh so tender, and longing for the experience.

    Everyone should read this piece of writing of Rob’s…

  19. Kiffi: Your suggestion is an interesting, and ultimately a very empowering idea for women and sex education in general. It sounds very similar to the “old” way of teaching.

    Perhaps we should teach the females that they are the ones who have all the choices. They are the ones who can choose to have sex, choose to use contraception, and choose to have a child. We could also teach them what is, in reality, the truth – they can’t expect, nor should they expect, men to take any responsibility for any of these decisions. In an ideal world, men should take responsibility; in the real world, they don’t.

    Teaching the men is much easier. All you really have to teach them is that if women don’t ask about birth control, then assume that they aren’t using any. Focus the boys’ attention entirely upon avoiding becoming a father. After all, which teenage boy doesn’t want sex, and which teenage boy wants to have a baby?

    While this approach is admittedly cold and unfeeling, it has the merits of being non-judgmental and clear. It does not attempt to tell teens how to act; it tells them how teens do act.

  20. What a great idea, David L!

    Except: Monetarily, the man is responsible, and so he should pay attention to that last detail on the night of ecstacy.

    Who thinks we should let the woman die or make her give birth? That’s the bottom line. Children are so very wonderful, but government should not be the one to choose between one life or another.

    Think “partial birth abortions”. These are very rare in the US, and why are they done?

    Back to the topic of sex ed. I agree with the idea that abortion should be taught about as fact, and not as a moral issue. However, I like it when teacher present two points of view, too. For example, have the kids read a piece on the horrors of abortion, and also the horrors of the back street alley. Let the kids decide (I think it would be nice to tell the kids to check at home with their parents “Often the best source of information on tough stuff like this is at home with your parents. Check with your families. What do your parents value? Do you value that?”

  21. Holly: When we try to teach kids to use contraception, aren’t we trying to teach a value – i.e. responsibility? If we value choice more than responsibility, shouldn’t we be happy when kids “choose” not to use contraception. Why the uproar over teen mothers if the mothers chose to have a child?

  22. David L., I think we teach ‘about’ contraception, etc. Not ‘to use’ contraception. Slightly different wording but it could mean a lot.

    Who says we value choice more than responsibility? I value both…

    I think there should be an uproar over teen pregnancies. That poor mom now has it rough, and in the end we all pay more because we do help some with our taxes.

    That’s where I think we could do better– helping the young moms and babies, and also helping people choose not to have abortions, things like that.

    Not mandating they can’t have abortion, but helping so they have an easier time of birthand early baby life. We have come a long way since we hid the pregnant woman away and then shuffled off the baby to some other place (shh), but there are still things to be done, I imagine.

  23. Me again, for example, early in our married life we had BCBS insurance that specified it wouldn’t cover birth for eighteen months. Before that, I was covered by my parent’s insurance (cobra) and then we married so we bought our own insurance. Rodd still in school and I about to student teach. We both had menial jobs.

    So, despite our payments, no coverage for birth for eighteen months. We got pregnant (even though we had used contraception) and found ourselves out of luck. Our Hannah was to be born one month too soon, and so if it had just been one month later… and babies are expensive! Birth alone is a LOT of money and physician visits (although no ultrasound for you since you don’t need one, especially since you don’t have good insurance) and vitamins, etc. add up. Plus, I had gestational diabetes (sing!) and so I had to drink awful stuff and get blood taken… blah blah blah.

  24. Apologies for resuscitating this moribund thread, but I wanted to share this piece from the Washington Post, which addresses this issue (in, perhaps, a more partisan way than we’ve been discussing it here among friends).

  25. I wanted to avoid this topic for as long as possible but it’s time to chime in.
    I agree with David L and Peter M, as usual. I think that babies are neat and should be given every consideration. If a teenager isn’t ready to parent, she and he both sure as heck can get ready in a couple months.

    I once asked a doctor if there is any problem with a girl getting pregnant as soon as she started menstration. He said that the pelvis would not be flexible, or too small to birth the child. Well, for me, I have been the same size I am now since I was twelve. I suppose that doesn’t hold for all teens, so add a few years if they are later growers.

    The other thing that is wrong with this discussion is that no one has brought up the negative aspects of birth control, besides the church’s banning of it. Birth control pills alter hormone levels, at least the older ones did or do. They have been associated with various cancers. Whether or not that is true, there is the stigma associated with them. As well as the personality changes. Lower the female hormone and you have a completely different ball of wax. The condom is disgusting, it has a foul odor and is difficult to manevuer and it breaks. In the throes of passion,
    one may not take the time to install it properly, iykwim. I don’t have first hand knowledge of this, but I have been informed by my nephew. I guess there are other more mechanical insertions, but I won’t comment due to insufficient information, but I can imagine there are problems there, too.
    Vasectomy became reversable, sometimes, and men lied about that, I hear. There is a whole culture associated with this stuff beyond the classroom, and it’s called reality, life on the streets, in the trenches, as it were.
    Nature is a bigger deal than we are willing to admit. I remember being a kid wondering about this other stuff that wasn’t ever even brought up around my school or home. Yet, You JUST KNOW something is in the ethers.
    This society decided somewhere along the line that education and jobs were more important than procreation, the continuation of the species.
    Many people are still largely involved in continuing their blood lines and they are the naturalists among us. They have no objection to babies being born into their families. I thnk it’s funny when some people think all people need to do what they want them to, and then those same people don’t want people in their personal business. It’s confusing at best to a youngun trying to get aligned with society. That’s what we should be talking sometimes, too.

  26. Here is another perspective.

    My sister in law got married and wanted children, but was unable to conceive.
    Adoption was the next logical option. What a journey!!!

    Besides not having enough adoptable babies available there is an overflow of older children. One might think this is a no-brainer, for from that.

    With all the regulation in place and laws that protect the birth mother more then the child and the adopters, it has become a nightmare to adopt a child in the USA.
    Te results are long waiting lists and an oversupply(bad choice of words) of adoptable children in foster families.

    To avoid the red tape and the legal implications in the USA they ended up adopting a child from Korea.

    I guess my point is. Why we should teach contraception and abstinence in schools, maybe we should promote adoption instead of abortion, and leave abortion as the very last resort.

    Of course we should create the legal structure to protect the children and the adopters.
    It is not an easy decision to give up ones own child, but leaving the option of reclaiming the child years later doesn’t sound very good either.

  27. A lot of kids and parents who were astranged for one reason or another seem to want to find each other as the child becomes an adult. There are just too many important reasons to know where you came from, DNA wise. We are a lost species at any rate, not knowing who you parents are just makes it all too mysterious, imvho.

    But, Peter, you said ‘claim’ and uh, I have a story to tell you. I used to make up questions when I was a young woman and I would ask 100 people for answers. My own little surveys. One time I asked people in a small town where they have travelled to, and another time I asked men if they could have children from their own bodies, would they. I don’t know if that last sentence requires a question mark or not, maybe Barry can tell us.
    Anyway, all but 1 out of the 100 men surveyed said that he would have a baby if he could. Well, then I HAD to ask him why, and he said because the courts wouldn’t be as apt to take the child away…Seems he was a German man, who had been through a custody battle and lost. The other 99 men where Americans, as far as I can tell, and expressed a lot of notions about not being a woman, not wanting to ever give birth, etc. That was in the 70s. I wonder if I asked that question today, what men would say. How far have we come? Any takers? Men, would you have a baby come through your body if you were capable of carrying a child to birth?

  28. Rob: You didn’t comment on the article you cited. I would be interested to hear your thoughts because of your ability to engage in a dispassionate discussion on a passionate topic.

    Two things about the article struck me as odd:

    Firstly, the author seems to completely dismiss abstinence teaching as an integral part of telling kids how to avoid getting pregnant. It can’t be disputed that abstinence is the only sure way not to get pregnant. Shouldn’t we educate our children about how the sexual urge is so strong that it will often overwhelm their rationality? Shouldn’t we teach them that abstinence-until-marriage is the only sure check on their urges?

    Secondly, the author completely dismiss the idea of adoption that Peter brought up earlier. It seems to me that the proponents of abstinence-less teaching are warning of the dangers of motherhood at an early age as if getting pregnant locks mothers into a lifelong struggle against poverty. It strikes me that the champions of “choice” become the harshest critics of “choice” when the mother chooses to raise the child. To be complete, shouldn’t our “sex education” include information on adoption, and not just the horrors of young parenthood?

    Do you think that these criticisms are warranted?

  29. For me, David, the key phrase in the piece was when the author spoke of creating “an environment in which young people receive support from parents and other adults as they learn about relationships and wise sexual choices.” This doesn’t preclude (and, indeed, should include) a discussion of abstinence and adoption as possible choices.

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