Teen pregnancy in the U.S

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Teenage pregnancy in the United States: How sex education has failed our youth

Teen pregnancy has been an issue for many years, but most people have not taken the time to consider how it changes and influences our society as a whole. Young woman are victimized and stigmatized for becoming pregnant, and all the while society is not doing its best to take care of these girls. Our sexual education programs in schools have failed, parent’s lack the skills and knowledge to teach their children what they need to know, and young people are confused about sex and birth control. Our society has largely ignored the problem, and when solutions are implemented they are usually not appropriate or effective. It is not


easy to get through to a teenager and help them understand that the seemingly small decisions they make now will change their lives forever.

Teen pregnancy rates have been going down over the last 15 years, however they are on the rise again recently. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 750,000 teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant every year in the United States. Girls who have sex at an earlier age have a higher chance of becoming pregnant that those who wait until they are older. Almost half of girls who have sex before they are 15 will become pregnant, according to the 2002 National survey of Family Growth. 31% of teenage girls will become pregnant by the time they turn 20, and most of these are not wanted or planned.

Teen pregnancy affects society as a whole: taxpayer money goes towards welfare, sex education programs, etc. Anyone who has a teenager worries about an unplanned pregnancy. Teenagers living in poor neighborhoods, without a lot of resources or opportunities may be more likely to become pregnant. This perpetuates the cycle of young parents, who usually don’t end up raising the child together. More often, young women are left to raise a baby on their own, without the father and often times without any financial help. This leads to more women who rely on the welfare system, which is funded by taxpayers.


According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, low birth weight and premature babies are known to be more common among teenage mothers. Other factors affect this as well, including marital status, poverty and education. Teens that lack in these categories are more likely to become teen mothers, so all the factors are working hand in hand against these girls.

In addition, the majority of children from an unplanned pregnancy are born to unmarried women. This is important because children raised in single-parent families face more challenges in a variety of areas than do children raised in two-parent, low-conflict married families. For example, when compared to similar children who grow up with two parents, children in one-parent families are more likely to be poor, drop out of high school, have lower grade-point averages, lower college aspirations, and poorer school attendance records. As adults, they also have higher rates of divorce. Such data suggest that reducing unplanned pregnancy will increase the proportion of children born into circumstances that better support their growth and development.” (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. May 2006.)

Historically in the United States, and also in less developed countries, women have babies younger and get married younger. Before birth control was distributed in the U.S., it was common to get married and have children soon after you were physically old enough to do so. They also had more traditional values and family support systems, and girls were praised for having a lot of children at a young age. Now days, puberty comes along earlier, and the average age people are getting married has gotten higher and higher. There are now many years between the age we are able to become sexually active and the time we get


married. It is more difficult, and much less likely for young people to abstain from sex the entire time and wait for marriage.

Getting pregnant at a young age leads to teens being poor or dependent on welfare into adulthood. Lack of education about sex leads to susceptibility of abuse. The children of teen mothers are more likely to be poor and have kids when they are teens. Girls who become pregnant at a young age don’t always obtain appropriate medical care while they are pregnant, especially in the first few months. Often times they are afraid to tell their parents, and so they don’t seek help, and the baby is more likely to have health problems.

Teen pregnancy is linked to many, many other issues in society. If it doesn’t affect you directly, it has affected you indirectly in some way. Tax dollars are spent on pregnancy prevention programs, sexual education, and welfare. Woman who have children at a young age are more likely to be poor and use some form of public assistance. They will need medical help taking care of their children and themselves. They are more likely to drop out of school, which leads to less education people in the work force. Child abuse and neglect are more prevalent in situations with unwanted pregnancies.

Providing contraceptives in schools.


A study published by the American Journal of Public Health found that providing condoms in schools does not increase the rate that students have sex. 12,857 students from schools in New York and Chicago participated in the study. The students in New York were provided with free condoms available at school. The Chicago students were not. The students continued to have sex at the same rate, but the students at New York used condoms more frequently. The availability of condoms does not cause students to have sex at earlier age, or more frequently. It does, however increase the usage of condoms by students when they do have sex. Combined with education programs on HIV, other STD’s, and pregnancy, providing condoms in schools is an effective, harmless and inexpensive way to increase condom use by students.

How the U.S. compares globally

The teenage birth rate in the U.S. is the highest in the developed world. Teens here don’t have sex more often or at a younger age than in other countries, so why do they get pregnant at higher rates? One of the answers to this complex question lies in our culture, and the way we stigmatize sex. Many parents have to be urged into giving their kids “the talk,” if they give it at all. But why is it such a hard thing to do in the first place? Parents avoid the subject all throughout their children’s lives, censoring them from things that they may not deem appropriate, and then suddenly realize that their children are growing up and will soon become


adults. They are real people that can’t be protected from everything in the world, and they need knowledge about what they are going to encounter in school, from friends and others. But since the parents have spent so much time running away from the topic, they find it hard to suddenly sit down and have an honest conversation. It’s not just the parent’s fault that they have such difficulty talking about sex with their kids. The problems stem from the general culture we have in the United States, often deeming it something dirty and wrong.

Problems with abstinence only programs There is endless controversy about what type of sex education we should be providing in our schools. Conservatives and religious leaders want to preach abstinence only; others think we need to give our kids the tools and education necessary to have safe sex. In the early 80’s, the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) was passed by the Reagan administration. These gave more money to abstinence only sex education programs, and were religion driven. In 2004 a report by Henry Waxman revealed several mistakes and errors in the abstinence only literature, funded by the government. Incorrect statements regarding how effective contraceptives are, how pregnancy actually happens, and HIV risks were all found in the curriculum. “Over time, sex education has sought to influence not just the knowledge, but also the attitudes and behavior of young people. More than the facts of life, sex instruction attempts to mold how adolescents think, feel, and live their lives.” (Cocca: 2006)


Abstinence only programs have proven to do more harm than good. Teenagers are going to have sex no matter what, so there is no point in trying to convince them not to. In fact, “Studies show that girls who sign abstinence oaths are less likely to use birth control when they have sex and so are more likely to become pregnant out of wedlock. (Boonstra 2002, as cited in Cocca 42.)

In April 2007, a federally funded study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. looked at four different abstinence only programs. Students at a New York high school were followed for four to six years, and compared with students at a Chicago high school who did not receive the abstinence only education. They found that the New York students had the same amount of sexual partners as other students, and had sex at the same age as others. Studies have shown that these programs do not increase the age that teenagers start having sex. It only decreases the amount of teenagers that use contraceptives when they do have sex. These programs are teaching that the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to avoid having sex until marriage. There are several problems with this approach. First of all, most normal teens do begin having sex before the age of 20 regardless of what type of education they are receiving about sex, in or outside of the home. The abstinence only programs don’t teach about how to use birth control, or give resources teens can use to obtain it and receive appropriate medical care. It makes the fact that teens are


having sex into something they need to hide, because they are learning it’s wrong. In turn, they can’t tell any adults what they are doing and this puts them at much greater risk for unwanted pregnancy, STD’s and medical problems. Why is society so afraid to acknowledge the fact that teens have sex? We are putting our young people at greater risk by refusing to acknowledge this. The government is still spending millions of dollars on these programs, unwilling to admit they are not doing anything to curb the teen pregnancy rate. Between conservative, religious officials promoting abstinence only programs and lack of support for legitimate facts pertaining to today’s teenagers, there is no reliable education in schools that will provide our teens with the skills needed to make better choices.

Why do teens become pregnant? A very important problem leading to teen pregnancy is the stigma and fear of punishment a young girl feels when becoming sexually active. She probably will not want to tell her parents or a counselor, and this results in her not receiving any birth control. Also, couples may be afraid to obtain birth control pills or condoms because the girl is underage and they are worried they will get in trouble if anyone knows they are having sex. The age of consent varies between states, ranging between 15 and 19. The age span allowed ranges from 0-6 years, leaving a lot of variations between states, and some teens at risk.


Some states do not have age spans, and many that do prosecute same-age perpetrators at the misdemeanor (instead of felony) level. So, depending on the state, both the 16 year old in a relationship with a 15 year old and the 50 year old stranger who molests a 5 year old may be required to register as sex offenders: both may be subject to confinement and/or psychiatric treatment to “cure” such urges as part of their prison terms, paroles, or probations. Both may be considered perpetrators of statutory rape. (Cocca: 2006 p. 21)

Teens who purposely get pregnant In a recent news story, 17 teenagers at a high school in Massachusetts became pregnant all around the same time. When reporters began investigating the pregnancy spike, it was found that the girls had gotten pregnant on purpose, and planned to raise their babies together sans fathers. The school has an oncampus daycare, which leads some to speculate this may have factored into the girls decisions to get pregnant, by implying that it’s ok to have babies in high school. There is also speculation about how Hollywood and the media affect young girls’ perceptions about having kids. Many of the girls at this school were not in a relationship, and became pregnant by a 24 year old homeless man. A study done by the Population Reference Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics shows that almost


two-thirds of teenage girls became pregnant by a man who was 20 years of age or older. In module 4 we discussed gender and inequality in schools. Many students in the discussion board brought up the differences in the ways girls and boys are taught, and how this prevails all through our educational careers. There are a lot of things happening in our classrooms that perpetuate differences between boys and girls, and often times make girls feel like they are not as smart or good at school as the boys. According to Spade, minority girls are called on less than other students, (which may be linked to why so many Hispanic girls drop out of school) and all girls in general are called on less than boys. This leads to low self esteem that follows girls into college or influence whether they even finish high school or go to college. (Module 4- Spade 2004). I noticed also that a few of the females on the discussion board in module 4 mentioned sexual harassment. I believe it is very hard to control and evaluate sexual harassment in schools, because it is easy to overreact. Many say that kids are just growing up and figuring out how boys and girls are different, and that is why they tease each other and play around. This is true, but at the other end are the girls who feel like they are truly being harassed, but they really don’t know how to react or if it is wrong. They are too young to know the line between flirting and harassment, and may be confused by everything that is happening. In a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 29% of teens said they felt pressure to have sex.


Also, over a third of the teens who were having sex said they felt like things moved to fast in their relationships. Many of the teens reported that they had done things they didn’t really want to.

Conclusion As I have shown in this paper, sexual education is very important to prevent teenage pregnancy, but we need to do more than just encourage kids to remain abstinent. We must teach them that sex is natural and it’s okay to talk about it. We have to give them the skills necessary to make good choices in their own lives. They need to know what type of birth control is available and how to obtain it, without being afraid. They should understand that it is a big decision to become sexually active, and there are consequences. If educators and parents take a good look at the studies and the facts that have been uncovered, they will see that providing comprehensive sexual education does not increase the likelihood that kids will have sex. It will only give them the opportunity to make smarter choices. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy is working to bring education to everyone on the subject, and help educators understand what they can do to help. This is just one resource we can take advantage of to help prevent teenage pregnancy. The more we talk about it, and the more people know, the better the outcome will be.


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