By Paige Johnson
If a 13-year-old enrolls in eighth-grade Spanish, should her parents fear sheâ€™ll start packing her bags for Madrid as soon as the semester is over? Not likely. Yet opponents of comprehensive sex education often use similar reasoning in their opposition to allowing schools in North Carolina to offer it.
They claim providing young people with information about the effectiveness of birth control in preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections will somehow encourage teenagers to have sex. The opposite is true.
Research shows that comprehensive sex education actually equips young people with the skills necessary to delay having sex while also preparing them to make more responsible decisions when they do. This is partly why poll after poll shows strong support for comprehensive sex education, particularly among parents.
If the Healthy Youth Act becomes law, parents in every school district in North Carolina will be given the option of choosing comprehensive sex education for their seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders. If they prefer, they may choose an abstinence-until-marriage curriculum.
After four committee hearings and a spirited floor debate, the North Carolina House recently passed the Healthy Youth Act. It now heads to the Senate, where opponents vow to continue their fight against giving parents this option.
Opponents of comprehensive sex education who believe abstinence-until-marriage should be the only curriculum in North Carolina schools miss the point time and again.
The cornerstone of comprehensive sex education is building lifelong skills. For instance, comprehensive sex education teaches the importance of using birth control effectively. The vast majority of sexually active people will use birth control at some point in their lifetime. Knowing how to do so effectively is essential knowledge â€” even for couples who use birth control for the first time on their wedding night.
For far too long, providing comprehensive sex education in North Carolina has been bogged down in divisive politics. Since 1995, when the General Assembly replaced comprehensive sex education with an abstinence-until-marriage curriculum, legislative efforts to restore comprehensive sex education statewide have failed despite alarming statistics surrounding teenage pregnancy.
North Carolina has the ninth-highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the country. Almost 30 percent of teenage pregnancies in North Carolina are repeat pregnancies. And despite the fact that abstinence-until-marriage has been the standard curriculum for a decade, 69 percent of North Carolinaâ€™s high school seniors report having sexual intercourse at least once.
Proponents of the current abstinence-until-marriage law often cite a decline in teenage pregnancy after the law was passed as proof of its effectiveness. North Carolinaâ€™s rate of teenage pregnancy did go down after 1995. However, the decline was part of a national trend of plummeting teenage pregnancy rates that began in 1991.
In fact, while North Carolinaâ€™s rate of teenage pregnancy decreased by 31 percent from 1991 to 2005, some states with comprehensive sex education saw an even larger decrease. For example, teenage pregnancy rates in Maryland, which offered comprehensive sex education, decreased by 41 percent during this same time period.
Last year, the rate of teenage pregnancy started climbing once again. The bottom line is that North Carolina has never dropped out of the top 10 in terms of states with the highest teenage pregnancy rate. Statistically speaking, the future for these young parents is bleak. Teenage parents are more likely to drop out of school, be poor and be imprisoned. The same is true for their children. They deserve better.
The Healthy Youth Act is a start. Parents will be able to review the curriculum and choose for themselves. Perhaps just the act of reviewing the materials will spur parents on to have much-needed but difficult conversations with their children about sex. It couldnâ€™t hurt.
Opponents of the Healthy Youth Act need not fear giving parents a choice unless what they really fear is the choice parents across North Carolina will make.
Paige Johnson is the director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina.