The following letter was written by my colleage, Bill Taverner (whom you've seen in this blog before) and sent to the New York Times.
When Governor Sarah Palin, Republican candidate for Vice President, announced that her 17 year-old daughter was pregnant, Democratic Presidential contender Barack Obama was quick to tell his supporters to "Back off!" He reminded everyone that he, himself, was the product of a teen pregnancy, and that the Palin family deserves privacy in this matter. He is right. Mostly.
The difference, of course, is that when Senator Obama's mother was pregnant at age 18, no one in her family was running for office or contemplating the nation's teen pregnancy prevention policies for the next generation. Yes, 17-year-old Bristol Palin deserves privacy. To put a nation's failures on the shoulders of young Bristol Palin would be unfair. But no, her mother, Governor Palin, does not deserve the luxury of privacy, at least when it comes to examining the failed public policies she supports that affect the rest of the nation's teenagers.
After the Palin family made its announcement about their daughter's pregnancy, one of the delegates at the Republican convention in St. Paul, MN, put it best. "Well, she wouldn't be the first one," said Pam Younggren of Fargo, ND. Indeed, you could almost say she's one in a million! Or, more precisely, one in three quarters of a million. That is the number of teens that become pregnant every year in the United States: 750,000 pregnancies.
If that figure sounds alarming, it should. The United States lags far behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to preventing teen pregnancy. The United States has maintained a rate of teen pregnancy four times higher than that of France; five times higher than the rates in Germany; and nine times higher than the rates in the Netherlands. What's going on in these other countries? Are their teens having less sex than teens in the United States? No - actually, the rates of sexual intercourse among teens in Western Europe are similar to those in the United States. The difference is in prevention education. Young people in western European countries learn about the choices of sexual abstinence AND methods of contraception and disease prevention. The United States federal government, by contrast, has seen fit to fund programs that only teach our nation's youth about sexual abstinence.
For more than a decade, Congress has secured over $1.5 billion in federal tax dollars to pay for abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs that forbid giving accurate information about condoms and contraception. The failure of AOUM programs has been well-documented:
* A congressional oversight committee found that 80% of AOUM curricula contained "false, misleading, or distorted information about sexual health."
* Independent research groups have found that there is no strong evidence that AOUM programs have any impact on teen sexual behavior.
*Researchers found that among more than 20,000 teens who made "virginity pledges," 88% failed to keep their pledges.
Nevertheless, AOUM programs continue to be championed by Senator John McCain and Governor Palin. But, since accepting the federal AOUM monies require states to pony up matching state tax dollars, many states have begun to critically examine the costs and benefits of accepting the money. At a time when everyone seems to be tightening their belt buckles, governors want to be accountable to their constituents. Investing more hard-earned tax dollars into a sinking ship is not the best way to endear oneself to the populace! Thus, two dozen states have refused the federal monies.
What does this have to do with Bristol Palin? Nothing. Everyone wishes her a healthy and safe pregnancy, and the best of support from her loving family. She is fortunate to live in a country where she can make a decision about whether to continue her pregnancy, and whether to marry the man who shares responsibility in her pregnancy.
What does this have to do with everyone else? Everything. This issue is much larger than a single family. The way the next president and vice president prioritize teen pregnancy prevention will speak in volumes about whether we catch up with the rest of the developed world that has already figured out strategies that are successful. McCain and Palin need to re-examine their long-held policy of withholding critical prevention information from teenagers. 65% of teens have had sexual intercouse by the 12th grade. To preach "Abstinence!" to them is to continue to keep their heads in the sand and pretend the problem will go away. They need to decide if they will listen to the vast majority of Americans (82%) who want education to include information about BOTH abstinence and other methods of contraception and prevention of sexally transmitted infections. Even 72% of voters from "red states" want sexuality education. How the Palin family plans to handle an unplanned teen pregnancy is their business. How Governor Palin and Senator Mccain choose to handle this issue nationally is everybody's business.