Abstinence, Texas and Teen Pregnancy

While the United States has seen declining rates of teen pregnancy (along with a very slight reduction in self-reported teen sexual activity), Texas has the slowest rate of decline. In a typical year, 35,000 Texan teenagers and women under 20 get pregnant. Texas also leads the nation in repeat teen pregnancies. As would be suspected, researchers wondered why this was the case and investigated. The finding was hardly surprising. While many states have addressed the problem of unplanned teen pregnancies by education and social services support, Texas has elected to take a different approach. Most Texas schools offer either no sex education or abstinence only sex education. While many states offer contraception counselling to teen mothers, Texas generally does not—hence Texas leads the country in repeat teenage pregnancies. Texas also has rather restrictive policies regarding contraception for teenagers, although the evidence clearly shows that access to contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies (and hence also reduces the number of abortions). Despite the solid evidence linking Texas’ approach to its problem with teen pregnancy, the view of many social conservatives is that abstinence only education is the best approach. This is a rather problematic view.

Looked at in the context of the objective data on teen pregnancy, Texas’ abstinence only (or no sex education at all) approach is clearly not the best. If, of course, the best approach is the one that most effectively reduces unplanned teen pregnancies. To use the obvious analogy, it is as if Texas was trying to reduce automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities involving teenagers by offering them either no driver education or driver education that says not to drive or get in cars. Texas is also doing the equivalent of trying to ensure teens who do get in cars do so without access to seat belts, air bags and other safety equipment. The absurdity of this approach should be evident on the face of it. This, of course, assumes that the best approach is defined in terms of reducing unplanned teen pregnancies. However, there are other ways to evaluate approaches to addressing teen pregnancy.

One alternative approach is to select the method that is regarded as morally best, defined in terms of the moral principles used to make this assessment. For some conservatives, premarital sex is morally wrong. On this view, Texas is taking the right approach because unmarried teenagers should be practicing abstinence and enabling them to understand and access birth control would be to contribute to their immoral deeds. To use an analogy, consider murder. Since murder is wrong, schools should teach an abstinence only approach to murder and not enable people easy access to implements of murder (except guns; this is not only America but Texas).

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is to point out that the moral righteousness of those who deny teenagers proper sex education and access to contraceptives comes at the cost of considerable harm to the teenagers and society. Allowing this harm to occur to others simply so one can impose their own values seems to be morally unacceptable on utilitarian grounds.  There is also the moral concern about the rights of the teenagers to make their own informed choices about consensual sexual behavior. The imposition of the values of the social conservatives denies them this right and infringes on their freedom. Naturally, those who value abstinence and oppose contraception are free to act on this view themselves—they have every right to not engage in sex or to not use contraception when they do so. They do not, however, have the right to cause harm to others because of their views of sex.

Interestingly, the Texas approach can be seen as the best approach by considering an alternative set of goals. As noted above, if the goal is reducing unwanted teen pregnancies, then the Texas approach is a poor one. However, if there are different goals, then the approach could be regarded as a success. One possible goal is to ensure that the poor and uneducated remain that way. After all, unplanned pregnancies are most likely to occur among the poor and uneducated and they make it harder for people to rise out of poverty and also to achieve educational goals. Maintaining a poor and uneducated population confers some significant benefits to the upper classes and also meshes with some morally repugnant ideological views. Another possible goal is to “keep women in their place” by making it more likely that they will get pregnant as teenagers. This is a variant of the goal of maintaining an underclass; in this case the specific targets are girls and young women.

While a utilitarian case could, perhaps, be made for using these policies to help maintain the underclasses, the harms caused by them do seem to outweigh the advantages gained by the upper classes. As such, policies aimed at maintaining the underclasses would seem morally wrong.

In light of the above discussion, Texas’ approach to teenage pregnancy is either merely ineffective or immoral (or both). As such, the policies in Texas should be replaced by those that have proven effective elsewhere. Or not. Texas being the worst does have the benefit of allowing other states to look down at Texas and this does have a certain appeal.

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  1. Karen Lankford

    My mother used to say: “If you can’t be good, at least be careful.” This is the approach taken by comprehensive sex education. It would be a good idea if teens refrained from sex, because they are generally too emotionally immature to handle all of the consequences of such actions. However, they should be aware that sex is a very strong biological urge and if their hormones get the better of them, they should know how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Teens who think that they will just abstain until marriage find themselves unprepared to deal with their own urges and are more likely to get pregnant. Teens who are given more comprehensive sex education are not more likely to be sexually active, but they are more likely to put the breaks on long enough to use a reliable form of birth control.
    There is no inconsistency between urging teens to delay sexual activity and making sure that they know how to use birth control and have access to it. This is no different than telling teen drivers to stick to the speed limit and never use their phones while driving, and also to always wear a seat belt. It is better to be an alert driver and avoid an accident, but the next best outcome is to survive the accident.

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