Last week’s AP report on changes in state abortion numbers found that nearly all states experienced a drop in abortion since 2010. But what captured headlines was the 30-percent drop in Hawaii, the largest decrease of any state. Laurie Temple Field, a former associate of the ACLU and now a representative for Hawaii Planned Parenthood, lost no time giving significant credit for this dramatic decrease to Hawaii’s change toward Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR)—a contraceptive-focused sex-education approach.
Pro-teen-sex advocates are banking on the sticking power of a new twist in their messaging: “Implement our brand of sex education, and a state can expect to reduce abortion rates.” This messaging is designed to truncate support for Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) education among an influential group of supporters: social conservatives and pro-life policymakers. While this might appear to be a compelling messaging campaign, it defies logic and intellectual honesty, especially upon the examination of state data and the myriad variables that affect abortion numbers.
Analysis of the AP’s latest data reveals three main problems with the causal statements made by Planned Parenthood and their partners. First, decreases in abortion are seen in states with liberal abortion laws as well as those with restrictive laws. Second, both red states and blue states saw decreases in abortion rates. Third, abortion rates decreased in states with SRR education and with SRA education. No matter how tempting the pro-SRR sound bites are, there are simply no easy answers.
Sexual Risk Reduction Programs Don’t Decrease Abortion
Dramatic changes in human behavior rarely can be explained by a simple or single explanation. Hawaii’s 30-percent drop in abortion from 2010 to 2014 is no exception. To suggest that a few hours of sex education should be credited for this unprecedented drop is almost laughable.
One needn’t dig too deep to find a gaping hole in the “SRR education = reduced abortion rates” argument. The AP report shows that the decrease in abortions in North Carolina is nearly as high as that in Hawaii. North Carolina’s state requirement for sex education, however, mandates that abstinence must be stressed.
Conversely, the state of California has an even more explicit sex education policy than Hawaii. The AP report did not record abortion numbers for the state, because the state does not aggregate abortion data. However, the most recent Guttmacher analysis found California abortion rates to be more than 20 percent higher than the national average. Ever since President Clinton signed the Title V Abstinence Education program into law as part of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, California has refused to implement an SRA sex education approach. Since then, state laws have become so hostile to the risk avoidance approach that some argue that SRA education is virtually outlawed in the state.
The SRR approach blankets the state with messages that normalize teen sex. The recent news of a math teacher in California assigning extra credit points to any student who would take a selfie with the sex toys and condoms she or he found in a parent’s bedroom is one example of how radical the sex promotion has become. So, if the logic holds that SRR sex education policy is a significant determinant of reduced abortion numbers, one would expect California to have some of the lowest numbers of abortion in the nation.
Yet, quite the opposite is true. In California, 23 percent of all pregnancies end in induced abortion. This rate is higher than that of Hawaii, higher than the national average, and nearly twice as high as the rate in neighboring Texas. And Texas, incidentally, has one of the strongest sex education laws supporting SRA of any state. Although it is frequently attacked for instituting policies to give youth the information and skills to avoid sexual risk, Texas has one of the lowest abortion rates in the nation.
The Real Reasons for Hawaii’s Drop in Abortions
But eyes are on Hawaii because the decrease in abortion is significant. A 30-percent drop since 2010 suggests that a remarkable collection of factors is responsible for this change. It may be due, in part, to national sentiments that have become increasingly pro-life, particularly among millennials.
But sex education? Let’s look at the data. Hawaii’s teen birth rate has dropped 58 percent since it peaked in 1991, and the teen pregnancy rate (which calculates the percentage of births that ended before birth) has decreased 51 percent since it peaked in 1988. A February 2015 report by the Guttmacher Institute found that Hawaii has nearly the highest unintended pregnancy rate, but the rates are trending downward among teens. In addition, Dr. Donald Hayes, epidemiologist with the Hawaii Department of Health, stated that less than 20 percent of abortions in his state are performed on teens. Teen pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates began falling long before SRR education was adopted for Hawaii in 2009.
Interestingly, most media haven’t mentioned that Hawaii teens are waiting longer to have sex. In 1993, 44.3 percent of high schoolers in the state had ever had sex, but that number dropped to 35.9 percent in 2013. Nationally, 46.8 percent of high school students have had sex, so Hawaii’s figure is significantly lower than average. Also important is the recognition that these percentages have decreased at the same time that the culture has become increasingly sexualized.
Why has no one suggested that the fact that fewer teens are getting pregnant and having abortions might be due, at least in part, to the reality that fewer teens are having sex? The countercultural decision to wait for sex is noteworthy and certainly deserves praise and reinforcement by America’s adults, sex education teachers, and policymakers. Yet last week’s report on America’s falling abortion numbers is being used by teen sex advocates to minimize the healthy choices of millions of teens, while calling for the elimination of SRA programs that reinforce and encourage teens to avoid sexual risk.
Normalizing Sexual Experimentation
Of course, this move is to be expected, since these advocates use every opportunity to normalize teen sexual experimentation at earlier and earlier ages. But the prospect that socially conservative parents and policymakers would be willing to believe that the best way to decrease abortion is to shelve SRA education in favor of SRR education is a chilling possibility.
Honest citizens must resist this issue-triangulation and recognize this campaign for what it is: a deceptive crusade promising an easy solution to a complex problem. In the early 1900s, during the Progressive Era, one person voiced a similar argument. She suggested that easy access to effective birth control was the best way to prevent abortion. She also believed and modeled the sexual freedom she thought was liberating for all women. And while she wasn’t involved in formal sex education for youth, Margaret Sanger argued that once an individual became an adult, sex should be enjoyed without the constraints of marriage or morality. Abstinence causes “nervousness” and mental problems, she suggested, and so health and well-being for women necessitated contraception and a loosening of the social mores regarding sex. This one-hundred-year-old argument is nearly identical to the one made today in defense of SRR education.
Americans should not let themselves be duped. The best way to decrease teen pregnancy and abortion is by normalizing sexual delay among teens, not sexual experimentation, as SRR education does. The best way to normalize sexual delay—preferably until marriage—is by inspiring youth to envision their future, complete with the hopes and dreams to which they aspire. That means helping youth understand that succeeding in life requires self-regulation over things that can derail those future goals. Waiting for sex requires self-control, but this delayed gratification clears the path for a variety of other healthy outcomes in addition to delaying pregnancy.
A False Sense of Security
Teens who are taught that sexual experimentation is fine so long as they use contraception are given a false sense of security. However, they are still at significant risk for becoming another statistic in the STD epidemic. Condoms are the only contraception that offers any protective risk reduction against STDs. Even so, two of the four most prevalent STDs among youth are easily transmissible, even with the correct and consistent use of a condom.
Clearly, teen sex is a risky behavior. Although it has been demonstrated by copious amounts of social science research, this reality is rarely acknowledged. In fact, it is routinely ignored. Youth who wait for sex have fewer lifetime partners and are less likely to experience any of the physical consequences of sex. But the research extends beyond pregnancy and STDs. Teens who wait for sex are also more likely to avoid negative emotional consequences and to abstain from other high-risk behaviors. This increases their likelihood of having more stable and healthy marriages in the future. These are all topics regularly covered in SRA programs, but they are seldom discussed in SRR programs.
Social conservatives and pro-life policymakers must not fall for this contrived link between two separate issues. The agenda is very clear. Simply put, this is a clever ploy to reframe the abortion issue, the contraception issue, and the sex education issue around politically progressive priorities in an attempt to divide pro-life and socially conservative policymakers and citizens.
Don’t fall for it.