Accidental babies

In Colorado, 75 percent of teen pregnancies are unintended. What should we be doing to help?

Published May 22, 2007 6:15PM (EDT)

I'll admit it: I really don't understand what the huge controversy is over sex education -- and, more specifically, over trying to improve women's access to birth control. I know that abstinence-only advocates argue that teaching kids about birth control (and helping to provide it) will encourage them to go out and have sex, but isn't there a point where you have to actually pay attention to statistics?

Take this, for example: Monday's Rocky Mountain News reports that among teen pregnancies in Colorado, 75 percent are unintended, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy estimates that the cost of these unintended pregnancies, when you factor in extra demands on welfare, Medicaid and juvenile justice, is about $101 million per year. Luckily, the news is not all bad -- in Colorado, overall teen pregnancy rates have dropped 25 percent in the past decade. But the fact that three-quarters of the remaining pregnancies are still unintended indicates that there's work yet to be done.

One area to pay attention to is, as always, education -- as Doug Kirby, an expert on teen sexual behavior, explained to the News, "Experts know what works to reduce pregnancies among teens, but too few school districts in Colorado and nationwide follow the regimen of the sex-education programs that have passed scientific muster."

As the News points out, another problem is that even among women who want to use contraceptives, poverty can prevent them from having access to birth control -- according to the News, a large survey of Colorado pregnant women "found that among those who said it was very important that they not get pregnant, 59 percent did not use contraceptives." Yes, culture and religious beliefs could also have prevented the women from using birth control, but I'm sure that some of those women avoided condoms because they couldn't afford them. How can we work toward helping people -- once they've been educated about birth control -- to actually have access to contraception?

As a side note, it really gets me riled up to read quotes from people like Lolita Hanks, a board member of Colorado Right to Life, who told the News that the only correct choice is abstinence "because girls must learn to value themselves and their virginity." First, that completely absolves guys of the responsibility that comes with having sex. Second, what's Hanks' real goal here? Is she honestly trying to prevent unintended pregnancies? Or is her real point to teach kids that premarital sex is immoral? (She associates virginity with self-worth -- which means, logically, that to have premarital sex would be to devalue yourself.) It sounds to me as if it's the latter and when push comes to shove, that's not a very effective means of birth control. (Unfortunately, ovaries don't respond to guilt trips.)

If we're really trying to stop unintended pregnancies, we need to acknowledge that most people are going to have sex before they're ready to have a kid. But if we, as a country, keep denying teens access to sex education, don't improve overall access to birth control, and continue to dwell on the presumed immorality of premarital sex instead of accepting its existence, we're going to continue to see a high incidence rate of unintended pregnancies -- a consequence, I'd argue, that neither side is aiming for.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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