Monday, September 1, 2008

Abstinence Only

One of the main lessons of Mean Genes (reviewed below) is that human beings have primal urges that are not easily controlled by willpower alone. One of the most primal urges is the urge to have sex. That's what our genes want above all else: to be passed along. It's not surprising that, beginning in the teenage years, humans feel a powerful urge to copulate. Think about this: between the Neolithic Age (beginning about 10,000 years ago) and the end of the 18th century, the average life expectancy for humans was between 20 and 40 years (source). A sixteen-year old was already in middle age when she reached puberty (the average age of puberty was later in earlier centuries). So the phenomenon of teen pregnancy shouldn't be all that surprising. For our Neolithic ancestors, with a life expectancy of twenty, it was an urgent matter. And we still carry the genes of those precocious Stone Age parents.

In modern society, however, teenagers are, for the most part, not ready to become parents. For one thing, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls decision-making—is still developing in teenagers (source). And teenage pregnancy carries significant risks to both the mother and child. But that primal urge is still in us, and often overcomes our judgment and our self-control—especially when these qualities, as in teens, are still not fully developed. The Republican policy of "abstinence-only" sex education fails because it fails to recognize the nature of human beings and their powerful instinct to procreate. Abstinence is a fine ideal.* But an enlightened sex education policy should also recognize the reality of human weakness, and include full and accurate information about contraception.

The teen pregnancy rate steadily declined between 1991 and 2005. In 2006, the rate began to increase again (source). This during a period in which the government has insisted on "abstinence-only" sex education. In 2005, Hillary Clinton sponsored an amendment to a women’s health care bill that would “allocate $100 million for the prevention of unintended pregnancies.” The bill would have helped to fund family planning and educational programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies. John McCain voted against the bill. I fail to see the logic of those who oppose abortion, but at the same time oppose programs that would prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions. I fail to see the logic of those who oppose abortion, but at the same time oppose providing access to safe and effective contraception. John McCain doesn’t even want to acknowledge that condoms can prevent the spread of AIDS.

And now McCain has provided us with a new poster child for his party's failed policy of abstinence-only sex education and its rejection of family planning: the daughter of his running mate, who is seventeen, unmarried, and five months pregnant.

Update from the Chicago Tribune. "Palin addressed teen pregnancy prevention in her 2006 run for governor, indicating on a questionnaire that she favored abstinence-until-marriage education over explicit sex education programs, school-based clinics and condom distribution in schools. The high school that Bristol Palin attended for part of last year, Wasilla High School, teaches abstinence in health class, its principal said." Read more...

*I abstained from sexual intercourse throughout my teen years, but I'm sure it was only through lack of a willing partner.


Clara said...

The McCain campaign has been very careful to describe the decision to keep the baby as "Bristol's own choice" -- presumably to make it clear that her anti-abortion mother didn't pressure her into it. But of course both Palin and McCain want to overturn Roe, in which case Bristol would not have the opportunity to make the decision at all. Because any teenager is "ready on day one" for parenthood!

Anonymous said...

A valuable post, Rob. Thanks for putting it up right now. Fall 2008 is going to be an exceptionally interesting few months - we've already got race, war, and sex! What next?

J at said...

Well said. The abstinence only thing drives me nuts. I've written about it on my blog as well, though quite awhile ago. I don't see why people can't get it through their thick skulls that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. Or a 6lb, 7oz bouncing baby, for that matter.

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