An abstinence from abstinence?

For the first time ever, Congress' budget bill does not include funding increases for abstinence-only sex education.

By Catherine Price

Published December 20, 2007 4:30PM (EST)

Planned Parenthood just sent us a press release that makes a nice follow-up to Tuesday's post about states opting out of funding for abstinence-only sex ed. According to Planned Parenthood, as part of its budget bill, Congress just approved the largest increase in funding for Title X family planning since 2000, an increase of $16.8 million. (Title X family planning aims to provide low-income and uninsured families with "comprehensive family planning and related preventive health services.") Sure, the current definition of "comprehensive" forbids "programs where abortion is used as a method of family planning," but the program still provides services and advice to many families in need. What's more, reports Planned Parenthood, this year's budget bill does not -- I repeat, not -- allocate any additional funds for abstinence-only programs. (I almost wrote absinthe-only programs, which, in case you were wondering, are also not receiving governmental support.) It's the first time that has ever happened.

This all happens in line with the other hard-hitting news of the week: the fact that Britney Spears' younger sister, Jamie Lynn, 16, is pregnant. (Unfortunately for her blossoming career as an actress, however, "Juno" is already in theaters.) CNN asserts that Jamie Lynn's pregnancy will stir up the question already brewing in the United States about the definition of and punishment for statutory rape -- the father, Jamie Lynn's boyfriend, is 18. (Statutory rape is defined differently by states, and is becoming an increasingly hot topic.)

But I'm wondering if she'll become a high-profile example of the fact that many American teenagers, regardless of our emphasis on abstinence, are having sex. (Most of them are lucky enough, though, not to become accidentally pregnant, or to be celebrities, or to be Britney's sister -- that combination is a guarantee for tabloid headlines that would mortify anyone, regardless of age.) I think someone should seize on the moment and write a sex education book for teenagers and their parents. Titled something like, "Jamie Lynn Is Having Sex ... and So Am I!" (or, alternatively, "Jamie Lynn Is Having Sex ... and Look What Happened!"), it could be a fun "ice breaker" for parents and their teens. It could contain thought-provoking questions like, "What steps could Jamie Lynn have taken to not get pregnant?" (an excellent entry point into discussions about birth control) and include, as part of its lesson plan, a subscription to Us Weekly so that kids can learn firsthand the impact that pregnancy can have on someone's life -- not just on their plans for the future, but on how they look in a bathing suit. (CNN has already picked up on this basic idea, with a comment board titled "How do you talk to kids about Britney's sister?")

I don't mean to make fun of Jamie Lynn personally -- Lord knows she already has a lot to deal with -- but I do think her announcement of pregnancy comes at a sensitive time, when Americans are trying to figure out what we should do about the fact that, like it or not, many teens are sexually active. If Jamie Lynn intended to have a baby, that's her decision -- and responsibility. If, however, she got pregnant as a result of lack of access to information or contraceptives, then her very public pregnancy is also public evidence of our failure to educate our teenagers about responsible sex.

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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