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Teen Pregnancy

The Trouble With “Don’t Get Pregnant”

May 18, 2016


By Stella Balsamini, 18, Sex, Etc. Staff Writer

Health classes across the country, many parents and MTV reality television shows, like Teen Mom, send out the same, forceful message to teenagers: Don’t get pregnant!

Lots of organizations, including Answer, recognize May as National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. It’s definitely important that anyone who is or plans on becoming sexually active knows how to prevent pregnancy.

At the same time, having a month focused on preventing pregnancy puts a huge stigma on teenage sexuality and makes sex seem like something scary and shameful. Overwhelmingly, sex is taught about in the same way that drug and alcohol prevention is: with fear-driven warnings about how young people’s lives can be ruined if they take part. Sexual health curricula for teens often forgo mentioning that becoming sexually active is in any way pleasurable or a normal part of growing up, and instead teenagers mostly hear repeated warnings about the potential negative repercussions of sex (such as unintentionally becoming pregnant.) Learning information about the seriousness of being sexually active is vital, but a focus on danger and prevention pins a scarlet letter to teens who are already sexually active or young parents. It also reinforces the idea that sexuality is illicit and taboo.

More than that, focusing only on the risks of pregnancy when teaching teens about sex is way too limited. Teen pregnancy rates have actually been dropping in recent decades, and while there is absolutely more work that needs to be done related to the issue, there are so many other aspects of teenage sexuality that should be talked about just as much as how to prevent a pregnancy. Plenty of people think that all there is to learn about sexuality is how to put a condom on a banana, but sexuality education should include so much more. Rarely do teenagers hear about what to do if they face abuse in their relationship, or where to go if they need to access sexual health services. The process that many teens go through of coming to terms with their gender identity or sexual orientation is rarely talked about by the media, parents or health teachers, and most lesbian, gay or bi teens don’t learn about relationships between same-sex couples at all unless they turn to the Internet.

The idea of having a month focused on teenage pregnancy prevention comes from a good place, and teens should understand what they’re getting into if they want to have sex. In addition to this, sexuality is something that is fun and healthy to explore and learn about, and all parts of it should be discussed more openly so we are informed and prepared. It’s time everyone began thinking of sexuality as a normal part of life, not as a danger.

Teen Parents Need Support Not Shame

May 30, 2014

As health and sexuality educators we work to ensure that young people know how to prevent pregnancy, but are we also supporting teens when they become parents? Too often teen parents are shamed, and shaming does nothing to ensure young parents graduate from school and go on to pursue work that allows them to support their families. Answer recently spoke with Natasha Vianna, Online Communications Manager at the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, about the work she does to provide comprehensive sexuality education and to support pregnant and parenting teens.

Alex Medina: You’re one of the young mothers behind the #NoTeenShame campaign. What led you to start the campaign?

Natasha Vianna: My negative experiences as a teen mom were shaped by people who refused to see me as a valuable woman in our society. Adults, relatives, educators, providers and strangers have regurgitated statistics and data with the intention of limiting my potential and putting me “in my place.” Organizations claiming to have the good intention of reducing teen pregnancy were using their power and money to continue oppressing my already marginalized community by tokenizing our stories for shock effect.

Every year, I would mentally and emotionally prepare myself for May, Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, and the accompanying images, posters, PSAs and messages around teen pregnancy. Often times, I’d ask myself if my 8-year-old daughter would see these images and ask me if I ruined her life like those ads said she would. She didn’t ruin my life, she improved it. But there were few organizations that were willing to elevate those stories, the stories of teen parents who rediscovered purpose in their lives and challenged the odds because of their children.

When the Candie’s Foundation’s #NoTeenPreg campaign was launched again in May of 2013, we joined forces and created #NoTeenShame. During the 2013 campaign, we heard from many organizations around the world that were thankful for our movement. Teen moms started tweeting us their stories. The children of teen moms started sharing their narratives, and people all over were eager to hear more about us and our work. This year, we made it a point to be proactive versus reactive by collaborating with organizations and designing helpful tips for allies. This campaign has really motivated me to continue pushing for a more just society and believing that anyone really can make a difference.

AM: Many of the messages young people get from pregnancy prevention campaigns are negative and shaming. What does positive and supportive teen pregnancy prevention look like to you?

NV: All young people, including young parents, deserve equitable access to LGBTQ-inclusive comprehensive sex education that provides the information young people need to make empowered decisions about their bodies, gender, sexuality and relationships. Sex education must address the impact of systems of oppression on sexual and reproductive health and rights. It must be inclusive of people with disabilities, LGBTQ people and parents as well as be culturally and linguistically accessible.

Truthfully, I would completely stop saying “teen pregnancy prevention” entirely and reframe my own language to embrace the importance of supporting young people and their reproductive rights. Teen pregnancy itself has been narrated as a negative consequence, one that needs to be prevented no matter what. This ignores the reality that teen pregnancy is a complex issue and that there are teens who want to become parents, feel pressured to become parents or come from cultures that simply do not vilify young men and women for becoming young parents.

AM: What’s one misconception about teen pregnancy that you’d like to clear up?

That teen pregnancy will ruin a young person’s life. This was probably the most traumatizing thing I had to hear over and over again. The message itself fails to address the reality that many of us were raised by teen parents or have relatives or friends who were teen parents. My mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my cousin and almost all the women in my family were teen parents. While being a teen parent was not the ideal role for young men and women, my culture also did not perpetuate the idea that our lives would end once we were parents.

When you’re a pregnant teen and you are constantly told that teen pregnancy ruins your life, can you imagine how that feels? Can you imagine how it felt for me to carry a child inside me that society already labeled as a public health issue? Can you imagine how it felt for me to give life to the very person that society said would end mine? It was a terrible thing to live through. I’d love to see us shift from that narrative and focus on all the things young people can accomplish and then provide them with all things they need to fulfill their own dreams. We have a lot of work to do.

AM: What can health teachers do to be more inclusive of pregnant or parenting teens?

I know health educators can often feel pressured to be inclusive, but it’s important to acknowledge that expectant and parenting teens often have complex identities. Being a young parent doesn’t put us into a different category; it just adds another layer to our already existing identities. Our pregnancies don’t always put us on the path to being more informed on our sexual health, so keep in mind that like all people, we are always learning.

Pregnancy Prevention Starts With Pregnancy Education

May 1, 2014

I think most people would be astounded by the number of questions I answer every week regarding pregnancy on the Forums at Sexetc.org or on the Sex, Etc. Tumblr page. If I had to guess, I’d bet that 90 percent of the questions have to do with pregnancy and whether or not the person asking the question or his partner is pregnant based on the detailed story they lay out for me.

Of these many questions asked about whether or not someone is pregnant, the vast majority of the situations described involve no risk for pregnancy. And, about half of the time when I tell the teen asking that there was low or no risk for pregnancy, they don’t believe me at first.

Easy to Dismiss

It would be easy  to dismiss a teenager’s anxiety and attribute it to hormones or “just being dramatic.” Some people would probably want to moralize and say, “Well, if teens can’t use birth control or condoms or “control themselves,” they deserve to get pregnant or contribute to a pregnancy.” But I’ve learned that teens’ anxiety about pregnancy isn’t about not using condoms, not using birth control or perhaps even not practicing abstinence; it’s that these young people literally do not understand how pregnancy happens, which means they can’t understand how to prevent it.

And that is not their fault.

How Pregnancy Happens

The teens who ask about whether they or their partners are pregnant usually describe a situation like kissing a partner who ejaculates in his jeans and wondering if this could cause a pregnancy. Or she’s on hormonal birth control and they used a condom when they engaged in oral sex, but maybe some semen got on his or her hand and they want to know if she could be pregnant. You would be surprised how many people think that sperm can live on shower walls, in sinks, on toilet seats or toilet paper or that sperm can get through layers of clothing.

Again, the fact that teens are asking these questions and want to know if they could be pregnant or could cause a pregnancy in these situations is not their fault. It’s ours, because obviously we need to do a better job of educating young people on some of the basics related to pregnancy and reproduction.

Pregnancy Education Is Pregnancy Prevention

A lot of times people hear pregnancy prevention, and they think of the methods by which to prevent pregnancy from happening: using a condom, practicing abstinence or using hormonal birth control. But I would argue that pregnancy prevention starts with something much more basic: teaching young people how a pregnancy happens. When we talk about pregnancy and reproduction with our children or our students, we should be thinking, are we doing it early and often? Are we doing it in a way that is age-appropriate and makes sense to them developmentally? And are we presenting ourselves as trusted resources so that they feel comfortable asking questions about reproduction and how it happens?

Pregnancy prevention and education too often get caught up in a debate about whether or not teens should be having sex, when really it starts with the fundamental belief that young people have a right to understand their bodies and how they work. It’s our job to arm them with the knowledge necessary for them to make healthy and informed decisions.

We owe it to them.

—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications

Some Truths about Teen Pregnancy

November 17, 2010

The-Gloucester-18-2009

We’re told that we have notoriously short memories. So I wonder, do you remember the infamous “Gloucester 18”? Here’s a hint: Gloucester is a small town in Massachusetts that bills itself as “America’s Oldest Seaport.” Doesn’t ring a bell? Then how about the words “pregnancy pact”?

“Bingo,” I hear you say, “that’s the place where all those girls in one high school made a pact and got pregnant on purpose, right?”

No, you would be wrong—not because you aren’t up on your facts, but because until very recently no one took the time to try to get to the bottom of the story.

Kristen Grieco, a former Gloucester Daily Times reporter who first broke the story, has stepped up to clarify the charge against the girls and the town by producing a 67-minute documentary film, The Gloucester 18. Hers was a team effort with director and executive producer John Michael Williams, and associate producer/editor Joseph Provenzano. They created a moving, compelling film that reveals the real story about the supposed “pact” as well as more profound truths about teen pregnancy.

Grieco was the original person to break and investigate a suspicious spike in the teen pregnancy rate at the local high school in March 2008. She also had heard rumors that “a clique [of girls had formed] with the express purpose of getting pregnant.” Dr. Joseph Sullivan, the school’s principal, started the ball rolling and explained the spike in numbers by saying that some girls purposely got pregnant.

The first truth that the girls in the film reveal is that there was no pregnancy pact.

Teens and sex!!! Always an incendiary mix to delight and attract the media, which can play both the role of voyeur and disapproving adult. After Grieco’s story broke, the national press descended on the small, economically strapped fishing village to sensationalize what actually occurred. After all, 16, 17, or 18 girls in one high school getting pregnant on purpose—what could be juicier for the mainstream media?

A Time magazine reporter coined the phrase “pregnancy pact,” and it drew reporters from such faraway places as Brazil, England, and the Netherlands to every corner of Gloucester to report the lascivious details.

The media got the story mostly wrong. There was no pact, but 18 girls in the high school were pregnant, which was considerably above the average number for a given year.

To Grieco’s credit, she decided to “hear” as much as she could about the true story behind the spate of pregnancies. She interviewed almost half the girls who had become pregnant (of the 18, six chose to have abortions), some of their parents, and the high school health educators. She couldn’t exactly find what the reasons were for the troubling spike but she uncovered some truths about the problem of teen pregnancy in the United States.

The girls who attended Gloucester were white. Grieco expanded her research to Lowell and Springfield, MA, to tell the stories of pregnant minority teens to see if there were any similarities and differences within the populations.  The themes were very much the same. Poverty and teen pregnancy often go hand-in-hand, and these three towns have experienced hard times during the last decade.

The film introduces us to Kyla, Alissa, Brianne, Hallie, Tabitha, Sarah, Leslie—all of whom deliver their babies and try to adjust to their new situations as unmarried, single parents (only a few have steady live-in boyfriends). We also meet one intact family and several other single moms who are raising their teen girls alone. Not many men are in the picture, which is also an unpleasant truth about teen pregnancy.

Grieco shows us the commonalities that most, if not all, of these pregnant teens share:

The girls seem passive and unrealistic about the challenges of raising a child and staying in school. None have much self-esteem or any future goals; they seem to have drifted into having unprotected sex and rarely, if ever, used birth control. They feel that some adult, hopefully their parent or parents, will accept their babies and help raise them, and most have absolutely no sense of what it takes to raise a child in safety and dignity, or the financial and psychological costs of it.

We learn that a high proportion of the teen moms were born to women who were teen moms themselves, and that the cycle repeats itself. Most of the girls who have a first birth in the film are pregnant with a second within a very short span of time.

The most troubling commonality is that so few of the girls had a loving, protective, and helpful family. I doubted, too, that their parents had been given much advice about sexuality and pregnancy. Some had grown up in the foster care system desperately wanting a family of their own. Many were looking for love and thought a baby would provide it.

Leslie, a minority teen girl from Lowell, is the one whose words and face lingers. Her mom gave birth to her at 15 and her brother at 16. I might characterize her as a “throwaway child” for whom no adult had ever cared. She didn’t have a home and spent her time living in shelters and in the back of vans. She seemed to have a lot of unprotected sex, probably in order to secure a place to sleep at night.

Leslie also had spunk. She was more articulate than the rest of the girls in the film. She said that her pregnancy was unintentional, believing that “it couldn’t happen to me,” because she had been told that she had only one ovary. She rationalized her pregnancy as “perhaps the only opportunity to be a parent.” Her only source of income was money earned from braiding friends’ hair. Leslie, by film’s end, is pregnant with her second child, still with no visible signs of adult support.

Dr. Brian Orr, the former director of the high school health clinic, and Kim, Daly, its former nurse practitioner, offered the best explanations for why so many of the girls in Gloucester became pregnant that spring. They knew that many of the high school girls were having sex, but they were not permitted to prescribe the birth control pill or distribute condoms in the health center. They crossed swords with the leaders of the local hospital that oversaw the clinic. Hospital officials publicly questioned the hospital’s liability if birth control prescriptions were written in the clinic. Despite Daly’s best efforts to inform officials that “being on the Pill is safer [for a teen female] than giving birth,” she was unable to change their minds.

Orr and Daly lost the battle and resigned. But the community uproar led the Gloucester School Committee to permit kids to get birth control prescriptions as long as their parents opted to enroll them in the program.
But this policy came too late for the “Gloucester 18.”

Greico is attempting to get funding for general distribution of her film, as in the case of the popular An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, and Waiting for Superman, about failing urban public schools. Presently, it is distributed primarily to education groups and community nonprofits through the Media Education Foundation.

I hope The Gloucester 18 will be distributed to a wider audience, since many more of us would really understand the roots of teen pregnancy. We would learn more about our responsibilities to the vulnerable teen girls who live in poverty and have little hope for the future. We’d also wise up to how the media sensationalizes teen sexuality to the detriment of those who are working to solve this serious societal problem.

Taking Issue with “Sex Ed in Washington”

February 4, 2010

My phone rang more than usual yesterday, and my e-mails were filled with rallying cries. The reason? “Sex Ed in Washington,” a New York Times column by Ross Douthat.

Friends who know my history in sex education urged me to “write a letter to The New York Times,” “write an op-ed,” and “please just do something to answer him back.” In fact, one friend simply wrote, “GO GAL, GO!” (The last time I heard those words was over 12 years ago when I was at the 19-mile mark of the New York City Marathon.)

Not wanting to lose friendships, I’m taking up the challenge of refuting Douthat’s subtle attack on sex education. He pretty much damns most sex education programs currently practiced in the U.S., calls for the end to federal funding streams that support them, and suggests shifting responsibility for deciding their content to localities and states.

First, Douthat claims that while federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have not shown any positive results in reducing teen pregnancies, neither have what he calls “contraceptive-oriented programs.” Comprehensive sex ed programs teach both abstinence and contraception.

This is his “a pox on both your houses” argument. But I think it is clear that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs should bear the brunt of what is wrong with many current sexuality education programs in America.

The federal government has funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for almost 20 years and only awarded money to programs that adhered to a strict set of eight guidelines, one of which is to teach only the negative features about contraception.

Some 14 states—including California, New York, and New Jersey—refused to take any abstinence-only money for their public schools, because state education officials believed that these programs lack integrity and are not in young people’s best interests.

The U.S. still has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any Western industrialized nation. True, the rate has plummeted in the last decade—although rising again in the last two years—but researchers attribute the success more to comprehensive rather than abstinence-only programs and teens using contraceptives more consistently.

A half-billion dollars of taxpayer money has been spent on abstinence-only programs, and proponents have come up empty-handed when asked for research proving their programs’ effectiveness. Although comprehensive sex ed programs have never received federal funds and have had to rely on private research funding, prominent researcher Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., found that some programs that teach both abstinence and contraception are effective in reducing teen pregnancies, the number of sexual partners, and the onset of teen sex.

Douthat claims that what’s taught in the classroom takes second place to family values, culture, economics, parental examples, friends, after-school activities, and “the cross-cutting of wealth, health, and self-esteem.” He claims popular TV programs like MTV’s Teen Mom have a more profound effect on young people than what they learn in school.

This is a “throw up your hands and do nothing to improve school programs” argument. Of course young people’s sexual behavior is affected by out-of-school factors that school programs cannot totally overcome. Our kids grow up in the most sexualized society on the planet, and many adults are schizophrenic about sex. On the one hand, we use sex to sell every product in sight, and on the other hand, we refuse to give young people high-quality sex-ed programs that will help them make smart, responsible decisions. (This is not quite the case in New Jersey as in other states.)

Further, if students’ math scores are low, we don’t throw up our hands and toss the subject out of the curriculum. Instead, we convene experts to study the issue and implement their recommendations. We do our best to strengthen programs, because we understand that they’re vital to help young people succeed. Why can’t we do this for sex ed?

Douthat goes on to argue that Washington should no longer fund sex-ed programs, but if the federal government continues to do so, “the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached.”

This is a “change the rules that we used to like” argument. Taxpayers have already spent over half a billion dollars to support failed abstinence-only-until marriage programs and not one single penny on what Douthat calls “contraceptive-oriented education” programs. Now is the time for us to look at the efficacy of a different type of program—one with proven success in reducing teen pregnancy.

President Obama’s budget and the House of Representatives’ version of the health care reform bill include funds for comprehensive sex education programs for the very first time in the nation’s history—and none for abstinence-only programs. Change is in the air, and abstinence-only folks are needy and greedy for more federal dollars.

Proponents of abstinence-only programs may be feeling bereft. I don’t blame them. Perhaps they will now experience the same feelings of exclusion that proponents of comprehensive programs have felt for years. But at the height of the abstinence-only movement, no columnist—or anyone else, if I remember correctly —suggested that Washington stop funding sex education programs, or that programs be competitive with “no ideological strings” attached.

As to Douthat’s suggestion that localities and states should make decisions about the content of sex-education programs, I don’t think this is the moment to turn all programs back to the states. Historically, local and statewide controversies have often kept young people from accessing life-saving health education.

Douthat claims that there are “competing visions of sexuality” in the U.S.: “permissive and traditional,” and that they will “probably be in conflict for generations to come.” In other words, it’s his “no common ground” argument.

Many in the media like to paint abstinence-only and comprehensive sex-ed supporters in black and white. They fan the flames of controversy by using words that Douthat uses, like “permissive” to describe those who support comprehensive sex ed programs, and “traditional” to describe those who favor abstinence-only. Guess who loses when words like “permissive” are used?

There is a sliver of common ground to stand on in this culture war. Any sex education program worth its salt should cover abstinence and provide correct information about contraception. Programs should be balanced. Abstinence, last I looked, is a very good form of protection from unplanned pregnancy and disease. It is not if you teach about it, but how you teach about it that counts. Scare tactics don’t work, but intelligent strategies do.

Unlike Douthat, I do not believe the sex-ed battles will continue forever. I am frankly tired of them and ready to extend an olive branch to abstinence-only supporters in the spirit of conciliation that President Obama urges us to foster. Perhaps together we can develop new programs that use sound research and will put the health and well being of our children and adolescents first. For starters, we should ask kids themselves what they want to learn about and when, since they often report that their sex ed programs are “too little, too late.”

No, Douthat’s column has not changed my mind about the importance of sex ed and what’s needed in the future. Thanks to my friends for urging me to write a rebuttal.

The First Lady Michelle Obama, and the Lessons “Double Dutch” Can Teach Our Youth

November 10, 2009

Let me start with an admission: I share a birth date with First Lady Michelle Obama and am therefore a special fan. Like me, she is a Capricorn (the Goat), but oh, so much more. Before I read that her birth date is January 17th — albeit some 34 years after mine — the only two people with whom I shared a birthday were Benjamin Franklin and Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Now I don’t want to sneeze at either of these two gentlemen; I am proud to be in their company. But I feel a strong, indescribable bond with the First Lady because of the January 17th connection.

I have avidly followed Michelle Obama’s travels and accomplishments since she has arrived at The White House. I have watched as she dug into the historic soil of the South Lawn and planted a garden to encourage more children to eat their veggies (with the exception of beets, which the president doesn’t like). I laughed out loud when I read that on St. Patrick’s Day last March, she ordered the water in the White House fountains turned a brilliant shade of green.

It is fun and games wherever this lively, outgoing, stunningly chic woman puts her touch. She seems to be perpetually surprised and thrilled that she and her family are living in the People’s House and doesn’t want to miss a minute to enjoy the experience. Michelle — as we have never met, I hope she won’t interpret my use of her first name as a sign of disrespect-makes me, at an advanced age, feel young and ready for new adventures. She makes me smile.

My admiration for Michelle’s Peter Pan spirit was only reinforced last Saturday when I read that she participated in the jump-rope exercise “Double Dutch” at a recently held “healthy kids fair” on the South Lawn. For the uninitiated or those who haven’t thought about jumping rope in some time, Double Dutch is a routine usually performed by 10-year-olds, not women in their mid-40s. It involves skipping between two ropes swinging at the same time in opposite directions, and it is very difficult not to trip and get your feet entangled in one or the other of the ropes. (The First Lady did not miss a step.)

Apparently, Michelle has a keen eye for what’s the latest rage among preteen and teen girls, probably because of her own two daughters. Double Dutch has an interesting history among games young people play. It was first played by Dutch settlers on the shores of the Hudson River some 400 years ago. The British dubbed it “Double Dutch,” when they arrived in the New World.

During World War II, it became very popular with urban children living in Manhattan, who made up and sang rhymes as they turned the ropes. The first tournament was held in 1974 and drew nearly 600 children. Today, the Apollo Theater in Harlem hosts competitions that draw Double Dutch teams from around the world.

Recently, Double Dutch has gained further recognition as “the newest of 35 varsity sports” played in New York City, according to this New York Times piece. (New Jersey, are we there?) There is also a team called the Dynamic Diplomats of Double Dutch that performs internationally with members ranging from teens to adults in their 30s.

The fact that Double Dutch has become an international sport gives me the perfect segue, since I heard a different definition for the term about ten years ago from a group of sexuality educators. They had returned from a trip organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, a national organization devoted to the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents. They had visited the Netherlands and other European countries to study sex education programs and societal attitudes about sexuality that shape public policy for young people.

These educators told me that “Double Dutch” is a common slogan that most teens growing up in the Netherlands learn at home and in school. It reflects the deeply held societal belief that a good sexual relationship is based on mutual respect and mutual responsibility. Young people are taught that before you have sex, you must have a solid relationship based on honesty, equality, and trust (no “hooking up” or one-night stands). They also learn to use two forms of protection against unplanned pregnancy and disease each time they have sex: the female always uses the Pill and the male always uses a condom (the “Double Dutch” method).

Most young people and adults know the meaning of “Double Dutch” and practice it, giving the Netherlands the lowest rates of teen and adult pregnancies, births, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases of any nation in the western Industrialized world.

I do not expect Michelle Obama to take on the issue of adolescent pregnancy in the U.S. It would be too controversial and too difficult in her husband’s young presidency to get mired in the culture wars. Instead, I wish her the best of luck in her effort to encourage young people to eat well and to exercise. I hope she will continue to amaze us by participating in more games of Double Dutch without missing a beat, or a step.

But leaders in urban communities nationally and here in New Jersey, where teen pregnancy rates are stubbornly high, can teach young people that the term “Double Dutch” has a second meaning — and that integrating this meaning into their behavior can make a real difference in their lives. They can even hold Double Dutch events and work in important lessons about sexual health to teens.

Who says that teaching an important concept about sexual responsibility can’t be fun?

A Panel of Palins

March 5, 2009

Let’s give credit where it is due: I am pleased that Bristol Palin and her mother, Sarah Palin, the Alaskan Governor and former vice presidential candidate, are speaking out about the birth of Bristol’s son, Tripp. Tripp was born two months ago when Bristol was barely 18. His parents are still in high school and, although engaged, have no immediate plans to marry.

Hurrah for Bristol and the governor for telling Greta Van Susteren of FOX that they are now opposed to abstinence-only-until marriage (AOUM) education in public schools.  (See video of the interview below.) Governor Palin calls abstinence-only “naïve,” and her daughter, although saying everyone should be abstinent, calls it “not very realistic.” These are small steps in the right direction.




It would be great if Sarah Palin and Bristol wrote to the president, their senators and congressperson and asked them to remove funding for AOUM from the federal budget. The unplanned pregnancy that brought little Tripp into the world is a perfect example of the results of incomplete sexuality education for teens.

Given her interview with Van Susteren, it’s clear that Bristol is willing to become the celebrity poster gal for preventing teen pregnancy. (The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate among Western industrialized nations, although it has plummeted in the last decade.) Bristol told Van Susteren, “I’m not the first person that it’s happened to, and I’m not going to be the last.” Later, she added: “Kids should just wait. . . . It’s not glamorous at all.”

I combed a recent People magazine article about Bristol to see if she was going to say something more substantive beyond, “I hope that people learn from my story.”  She added that it was her decision to have the baby, not her mother’s, and that she wishes she had gotten an education and “started a career first.”

However, her message is contradictory, as are most messages when they involve unplanned births; she also told People, “He…brings so much joy. I don’t regret it at all.”

I think Bristol should appear as part of a panel of teens who have been affected by teen pregnancy. For example, consider a panel composed of Palin and teens who’ve had the following experiences:

  • a teen girl impregnated by an older man;
  • a teen girl whose family is entirely supportive of early child bearing;
  • a teen girl who has chosen abortion with her parents’ support;
  • a teen dad who had to drop out of school to work in a dead-end job; and
  • a teen who is having sex but using reliable contraception.

This “panel of Palins” would represent different races, ethnicities and classes and would answer all questions put to it by a teen audience. Teens’ questions would be written anonymously and placed in a large Question Box on a table onstage. A trusted faculty person or student would read questions aloud, without embarrassment or editing, to the panel for answers.

My hope is that such a panel would get to the heart of the matter about why and how teens get pregnant and have babies while still in high school. Bristol Palin can really make a difference if she tells the truth and doesn’t gloss over details. She will need to be exceptionally honest and not mouth platitudes such as, “I wish I had waited.”

Bristol needs to tell her peers about the failures of abstinence-only and the importance of using contraception. She can always make a pitch for remaining abstinent, since many teens choose this route. But she also needs to explain how important it is to talk to parents about sex and urge students to use good teen sexual health Web sites like Sexetc.org.

I don’t envy Bristol the role of becoming the nation’s poster teen for pregnancy prevention. But if she does it well, she could make a real difference. This coming May is teen pregnancy prevention month. Bristol and her potential panel members don’t have a moment to lose.

Happy New Year

January 11, 2009

A new year and a blank page: both offer chances to shape the future. I wish health and happiness to everyone who reads this blog, and I also make a resolution: to help you teach and talk about sexuality more honestly, accurately and creatively with young people by offering you information and ideas you can use in your classrooms or homes.

The theme for this first blog of ’09 is teens having babies. It is spurred by the recent Today Show segment on the arrival of Bristol Palin’s much-heralded baby. The segment, titled “Oh, Baby!” and watched by millions, was led by Lester Holt, who interviewed a People.com reporter who covered the birth story. Both seemed to gush unnecessarily about the arrival of the new baby, Tripp, born to a barely 18-year-old unwed teen mom.


Holt made me wince when he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that since Bristol is the oldest daughter in the Palin family of five, she had plenty of experience babysitting and was therefore “ready to be Mother.”

To make sure I wasn’t completely off track, I repeated the readiness comment to several colleagues at a holiday party later in the day.  These colleagues—who work hard at juggling issues of work and family—looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. One said “baloney” about the correlation between babysitting and motherhood; the other assured me that babysitting “deterred me from having a baby until I was 32.”  Both said something that neither Holt nor the reporter mentioned: Babysitting usually lasts for a specific amount of time; parenting is forever.

What message is the media conveying to impressionable and often vulnerable teens with this segment’s romantic, sentimental approach to teen motherhood?  Is the media telling them, “Go ahead; have unprotected sex, have a baby and everything is going to come up roses for you”? (Yes, I know some might be thinking: Doesn’t she know that Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and countless other people were children born to teen mothers? They turned out pretty well!)

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Looking Ahead

December 1, 2008

In light of the historic fact that Senator Barack Obama will soon become our 44th president, I thought I would review what he has said to date about some aspects of sexuality and sex education. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he will necessarily act on his beliefs (the personal often does not become the political and the political often changes the personal), but his thoughts might point in interesting directions.

I started by reviewing Obama’s words from the third and final debate. If you’re like me, while watching presidential debates you always hope the moderator will ask the candidates directly about their views on sexuality education in public school classrooms. So far, no one ever has.

However, moderator Bob Schieffer did move in the right direction when he asked Senators Obama and McCain whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. This led to a back-and-forth discussion which touched on nominations to the Supreme Court, late-term abortion and life-saving treatments for children of botched abortions.

Obama eventually turned the discussion toward our issue: how to find common ground between those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life. He stated, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity.”

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Imagine…

September 12, 2008

Imagine with me a series of conversations that might have occurred between a 17-year-old who is five months pregnant and her mother.

At age 12…
Mom:
Your Dad and I have strong family values about sex and sexual behavior.  Sex leads to pregnancy and your father and I believe that you must wait until after marriage before you have sex. You cannot have sex until you are able to support a child and you must not become pregnant until after you are married to someone you love. Understand?
Daughter: Is that all there is to say about sex, Mom?
Mom: That’s all there is to say about sex. Just be abstinent. No kissing, no holding hands, nothing until after high school and until you find your guy.  Promise me?
Daughter: I promise.

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