September 17, 2017; Washington Post
As a preamble, we want to remind readers that “political” is different from “partisan” and broader than electoral politics.
In a few weeks, as the new federal fiscal year begins, programs across the country may see their budgets slashed. One such program is the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program put in place to support development of evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs across the country. As NPQ previously reported, the Trump administration budget devastates this program with a $214 million cut, ending the program prematurely to the detriment of American youth.
The administration indicated their position that teen sex education programs do not work and that abstinence-only programs should be supported. Yet, the data says just the opposite—abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) programs have dismal success rates and more teens become pregnant when only receiving AOUM education. Comprehensive sex education programs that include abstinence as an option appear to have the most success not in only decreasing teen pregnancy, but also delaying sexual initiation altogether.
In the face of common sense backed by scientific data, how is the U.S. in the position of taking a gigantic step backward in the year 2017? The unfortunate reality is that the issue of teen pregnancy, much like abortion, has become a highly politicized, if somewhat confused, moral debate. This is clear when we look at how officials in the Trump administration view sex education. To start with, there is Vice President Mike Pence, who undertook a crusade against the HPV vaccine when he was governor of Indiana, saying that if youth did not have sex until marriage and only engaged in sex with that one partner, men and women should not be at risk for HPV. Then, there is Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, the former Georgia congressman who says that comprehensive sex education “promotes promiscuity among young people.” Meanwhile, Georgia has the eighth-highest teen pregnancy rate—around 30 out of every thousand births are to teen moms—and a third of teenage girls who drop out in Georgia do so because of pregnancy. Lastly, Valerie Huber, chief of staff for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, is the former president of Ascend. Ascend is formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association—that says it all.
This issue wasn’t always so partisan. According a New Yorker piece by historian Jill Lepore, in the 1930s and ’40s, birth control and abortion were supported by representatives on both sides of the aisle as well as religious leaders. It’s notable that this was during the Great Depression, when families couldn’t afford to feed larger families; thus, support began for contraception. Later, with World War II raging, support for smaller family sizes continued. In the late 1960s, former president George H.W. Bush, then Representative of Texas, even said, “We need to make family planning a household word. We need to take the sectionalism out of the topic so it can no longer be used by militants who have no knowledge of the voluntary nature of the program, but rather are using it as a political stepping stone.” Around that time, president Richard Nixon established Title X, increasing federal funding for family planning.
It wasn’t until the ’70s, when Nixon was up for reelection, that his strategists suggested he could win the Catholic vote and the election by reversing his stand on family planning. In the memo “Dividing the Democrats,” a Nixon strategist wrote, “Favoritism toward things Catholic is good politics. There is a tradeoff, but it leaves us with a larger share of the pie.” The tradeoff, of course, was the well-being of the American people.
Although Lepore’s piece looks at birth control and abortion as opposed to teen pregnancy, the idea of politics controlling access to correct scientific evidence and helpful information still applies. Looking to history in the face of current events raises important questions for those in the field: Can anything be done to depoliticize the issue of teen pregnancy? Is there a common fear or threat that both sides of the aisle can agree upon? Advocates surely have their work cut out for them.— Sheela Nimishakavi
Correction: This article has been altered from its original form to correct some details about the teen pregnancy rate in Georgia. NPQ apologizes for the error.