06 July 2005

What Teens Should - or Should Not - Be Taught

Parents in the USA clash over what's appropriate when it comes to sex education.

Parents in the USA clash over what's appropriate when it comes to sex education.

Teen pregnancy-prevention programmes come in all shapes and sizes, from sex-education classes, to after-school programmes, to church-sponsored abstinence pledges to delay sex until marriage.

Indeed, 89 percent of American teens have had some form of sex education by the time they graduate from high school, according to a 1999 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in California, USA.

But it's the nature of that education that's at the heart of a bitter debate.

Bill Albert, director of communications for the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy in America, defines the dissension this way: "The people on the comprehensive sexual information side say that emphasis on abstinence-only programmes has prevented very valuable information from being taught to children about disease and contraception.

"The other side of the story," he adds, "is people saying, 'This is what kids need to hear from adults - that sex is not an option for them. We don't tell children that if you smoke, you should use filtered cigarettes. Why give them mixed messages about sex?' "

Abstinence-only groups believe their method is crucial to support the many teens who haven't had sex or wish they hadn't, and that offering contraceptive information promotes sexual activity.

"We have provided a platform for kids to make a pledge toward abstinence to delay the onset of sexual activity," says Paul Turner, a spokesman for True Love Waits, a Nashville, USA, organisation sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention.

So far, more than 1 million teens have pledged to remain abstinent until marriage, Turner says, adding, "The biggest clincher is that kids realise that abstinence is a real option for them."

Informed decisions
Proponents of comprehensive sex education believe that giving teens access to birth-control information helps them make informed decisions. "Parents who want information about contraception taught to their children are silent, while parents who don't want it are very vocal," says Lynn Pike, director of the University of Missouri's Centre for Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy and Parenting.

She cites her recent experience training teachers to implement a teen pregnancy-prevention programme that was evaluated by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention as effective in delaying the start of sexual activity. The programme, called "Reducing the Risk," includes information about both abstinence and birth control.

Of the 134 teachers who were trained to introduce the programme into their Missouri, USA, schools, only 12 ended up doing so, Pike says, mainly because of administrators' fears of controversy.

"If a principal has one parent who objects, it's enough to make him refuse the programme," she says.

Amid these divergent views are statistics from the Kaiser Foundation study that found an overwhelming majority of parents want their kids to have information about condoms, contraception and testing for AIDS. In the study - based on interviews across the country with 1,500 students, grades seven through 12, and one of their parents - the researchers found that 84 percent of parents want their children to get such instruction.

This included even the most conservative parents, says Tina Hoff, director of public health information for the Kaiser Foundation. "We found that parents are not thinking of this issue in political terms - they don't look at it as either-or," Hoff says.

"Parents are thinking in terms of the real world and are trying to protect their kids. They want their kids to be told to wait, but they also want them prepared," she adds.


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