- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There was Juno. There was Gloucester. There was Jamie Lynn Spears. And now, once again teen pregnancy has captured the attention of the media all across the country. Unfortunately, the media hype glamorizes an issue that is anything but glamorous.

As the mother of two teenagers, I recognize the real struggles families face keeping their kids healthy and safe.

Teen pregnancy happens to hundreds of thousands of girls each year from Bangor to San Antonio to Fresno. And, for the vast majority of these teens, the pregnancy was not planned. Most of these teens find themselves unexpectedly pregnant without the financial - or familial - resources to become a parent.

At Planned Parenthood health centers across the country, we see these teens, and their families, every single day. Last year, we provided sexuality education to 1.2 million teens and adults. And we see firsthand their struggle - their struggle to stay healthy, to make responsible decisions, to succeed in life.

This year alone, it is estimated that 750,000 teenage girls in the U.S. will become pregnant. That is more than 12 times the number of people diagnosed with AIDS in 2008 and more than the total number of people expected to die from some type of cancer this year. Put another way, 11 percent of all U.S. births are to teens.

What do these numbers tell us? First, whether we approve or not, our teens are having sex. By the time they turn 19, seven in ten teenagers have had sex at least once. And second, it tells us that when they have sex, they are not using protection.

But there’s more: Pregnancy isn’t the only consequence. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four teen girls has a sexually transmitted infection. The consequences of their actions can follow them for a lifetime. If that does not constitute a public health crisis, I don’t know what does.

As parents, as a country, we don’t want our kids to become parents when they aren’t finished being children themselves. America’s teenage girls and boys should be allowed to have their childhood; there is more than enough time for them in the future to bear the other responsibilities of adulthood and be parents. Parenting is too important to be left to chance. And the fact is that it doesn’t have to be.

Sexuality education for teens that is founded on medically accurate information, that is abstinence-based but also teaches contraception, has been proven to be effective in preventing unintended pregnancies. Teaching our teens about sex isn’t what makes them have or not have sex. Teaching our teens about sex is how they learn about prevention. It’s how they learn to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infection and disease. It’s how they learn to stay safe. Sexuality education works to reduce teen pregnancies. It works to help reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. And it works to help keep teens healthy and help enable them to plan healthy families.

A National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy analysis of more than 115 studies conducted to measure the effectiveness of teen education programs found that abstinence-only programs did not help our teens to abstain or delay the age at which they had sex.

Planned Parenthood educators teach teens and their parents to become smart about sexuality, and about how to talk to each other about sexual and reproductive health. We have peer educator programs that train teens to talk to their peers about sexual health. At some of our health centers, we offer special “teen only” hours to help make teens comfortable and welcome. We sponsor parent-teen nights to help facilitate open, honest and full communication between teens and their parents. We have programs targeted at parents to help give them the skills, resources and confidence they need to talk to their children. And, we have programs for pregnant and parenting teens that provide a supportive environment and skills training to cope with the challenges of parenthood and adolescence.

For the past eight years, more than $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on abstinence-only programs that don’t work. There is a lot at stake right now for American teenagers. These policies must change with the next administration. When it comes to sexuality education, there should be no debate. The only way our children can be prepared is to be informed; this isn’t about ideology, it’s about the health and safety of our kids.

Cecile Richards is president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

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