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Diane Mufson: Preaching abstinence alone isn't enough

Apr. 17, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

The great emphasis on teen abstinence or abstinence-only education to prevent pregnancy in adolescents has surfaced again. Some years ago over $1.5 billion was spent on federal abstinence programs for teens, as some people insisted that this was the right, if not the only, way to keep teens from becoming pregnant.

Later data showed that abstinence alone was ineffective. Nothing is wrong with abstinence; it is a laudable goal. It is just that it is not a realistic one in our society where sexual exploits among political power brokers, church leaders and famous folks are on view 24/7.

Many young people embrace abstinence, just not "all the time." More than a few teenage girls have found that they have been abstinent all but once and still ended up being a mother. Reducing teen pregnancy in West Virginia requires information and availability of contraception.

Knowledgeable adolescents rarely seek parenthood, but being teens their future planning skills are limited. Whether adults want to admit it or not, teens think about sex constantly and if or when that thinking turns into action, they need to know how to prevent pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other problems related to sexual activity.

Obviously that message is not getting through in our state. Recently, this newspaper reported that during 2007-2009, West Virginia was the only state that had an increase in the pregnancy rate for 15-19 year olds. A week ago, a motivational speaker from Believe in West Virginia spoke at some Kanawha County high schools on the importance of abstinence. While some students may have benefited from this presentation, others reported that they felt that the talk was "offensive."

Kanawha County School authorities said that this was not a religiously oriented program, but it is interesting to know that "Believe in West Virginia" has four primary programs and one is the "Silver Ring Thing." The Believe in West Virginia website describes this as "A sexual abstinence program directed towards teens." It says that S.R.T. is "to motivate, educate, support and transform generations of young people to embrace a life style of Christ-centered sexual abstinence until marriage."

So we are back to religious abstinence programs, which may have positives for some young people, but regardless of who presents an abstinence program, research data say it does little to reduce teenage motherhood. If we believe that telling adolescents with raging hormones, sexy role models and the opportunity to be alone together that they should just say "no," we are deluding ourselves.

In a state that has more than its share of poverty and health problems, there is little to be gained by having babies born to mothers who are themselves still kids and fathers who aren't ready or willing to be parents. WV Kids Count notes that, "One in three girls cites pregnancy as her reason for dropping out of high school and the poverty rate for kids born to teenage mothers who have never married and did not graduate from high school is 78 percent compared to 9 percent of children born to married women over 20 who are high school graduates."

Comprehensive sex education, not just abstinence, is supposed to be taught in all West Virginia schools. If we were doing a good job, we would have a declining teen birth rate as has occurred in most other states. We need to face reality; abstinence is a fine idea, but it is accurate information about and availability of contraception that will help reduce our state's high teen pregnancy rate.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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