Education & teen pregnancy

Anyone who practices family law–and anyone who simply observes our culture–sees the overwhelming correlation between human misery and folks having children they are not emotionally or financially capable of parenting.  Reducing teen pregnancy would ameliorate a range of social problems. Two recent articles in our local newspaper, the Charleston Post & Courier, highlight the issues surrounding teenage pregnancy.

The first is from October 28, 2010, “School-based sex ed program outrages mother of teen girl who received birth control.” It discusses a mother’s reaction to learning her fourteen year old daughter was taken from the Burke High School campus by an employee of the Carolina Empowerment Group, a nonprofit community organization, to a clinic where she was provided birth control.  The mother was outraged.  Part of the outrage was learning her daughter had been provided birth control without her knowledge (state law permits health services to be provided to minors of any age without parental consent when it’s deemed necessary).  Part of her outrage was that her daughter was taken off campus to obtain the birth control.  The news story notes that there is not a clinic in downtown Charleston (where Burke High School is located) for teenagers to obtain birth control.

I commented on this news story on the Post & Courier’s web site the day it came out, noting:

It’s a sad commentary on our culture’s focus when a 14 year old girl obtaining birth control without her mother’s knowledge is a local news story but a 15 year old girl giving birth is too common an occurrence to make the news.

Today another article in the Post & Courier, “Clinic offers help for teens,” contains a chart noting the number of pregnancies at each Charleston County high school the past three years. A perusal of the chart shows a remarkably strong correlation between poorly performing schools and high rates of teen pregnancy.  Burke High (the school the teenager in the first news story attended) and its Middle School had 22, 31 and 27 pregnancies the past three years.  In contrast, Academic Magnet, the highest achieving high school in the county, had no pregnancies the past three years.  School of the Arts, the second highest achieving high school in the county, and the high school my oldest child attends, had one pregnancy the past three years.

The explanation for the differing pregnancy rates at these high schools cannot be that teenagers at high performing schools don’t have sex while those at lower performing schools do (at least not at the rate that would explain this disparity).  There are schools averaging over 20 pregnancies a year and others averaging three or fewer.  The obvious explanation is that most children attending high performing schools tend to care enough about their future to avoid behaviors that would derail that future and that some children attending lower performing schools don’t care as much.  I would love to see someone chart the correlation between these teen pregnancy rates and graduation rates or rates of attending seniors who begin college within two years.  From the little I know about the various schools on the chart, I suspect there would be an extremely high correlation.

As a social liberal, I don’t have as big an issue with premarital sex as many of my peer and I support allowing sexually active teenagers access to reliable birth control.  However, I also support encouraging high school students to remain abstinent.  Yet hoping all teenagers will be abstinent in high school, and making that our sole method of reducing teen pregnancy, is not an effective strategy.  Nor is access to reliable birth control sufficient.  The best way to reduce teen pregnancy is to convince teenagers that they have a hopeful future upon graduation.

Yes, teach high school students the benefits of abstinence.  Because we know that they won’t all remain abstinent, teach them about birth control.  But we also need to convince them they have bright futures that would be derailed by early pregnancy.  Teenagers, however, are not stupid, and their hypocrisy antenna are highly attuned.  We cannot convince them they have a future if the education we provide them is second rate (or worse).  Given the data in today’s Post & Courier story, I suspect that providing every child a first rate education that left them hopeful for their futures would do more to reduce teenage pregnancy than any sex education we could provide.  Too bad we lack the political will to do this.

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