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How Republicans Are About To Make This State’s Teen Pregnancy & STD Crisis A Lot Worse

sexed

In Louisiana’s latest attack on reproductive rights, conservative legislators are trying to prevent medical professionals who also provide abortion services from educating children on issues related to “human sexuality or family planning.”

If passed, House Bill 305, which was approved by a House Health and Welfare Committee last week, would ban those with direct ties to abortion clinics from speaking to or distributing information in schools about sexuality or family planning. The bill originally banned such people from addressing schools on any matter, but an amendment offered by its sponsor limited the scope to subjects relevant to sex education.

Louisiana state law already prohibits sex ed materials from including information about abortion or contraception, but Republicans are accusing Planned Parenthood of “promoting” abortion among school children. 

During a press conference to introduce HB 305 last month, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) claimed that the legislation is an important safeguard against propaganda from ‘pro-abortion groups.’ “We’re not saying they can’t speak. We’re saying they can’t use our schools to distribute this literature and promote abortion,” he explained.

However, in a recent interview with RH Reality Check, Planned Parenthood confirmed that they’ve always complied with the law. According to Reagan Carter, director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, “Planned Parenthood does not promote abortion in any of our health education materials. Our sex education programs are age appropriate and medically accurate. We implement programs that are proven effective by the Centers for Disease Control and thefederal Office of Adolescent Health.”

Louisiana Republicans’ strategy is not new. Last year, the Texas GOP explicitly said that employees of Planned Parenthood can’t be trusted to provide sex education because they have a vested interest in convincing teens to get pregnant so the organization can perform ‘their abortions.’ Louisiana’s proposal shares the same misguided sentiment. 

And across the country, conservative lawmakers (and their right-wing media allies) are engaged in unprecedented attacks on Planned Parenthood, even at the expense of comprehensive sex education where it’s needed the most.

Louisiana lags far behind other states in measures of sexual health including teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Republicans’ efforts to further cut back on sex education are likely to make the problem even worse.

Currently, Louisiana has the 6th highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. But according to the most recent data from the Guttmacher Institute, Louisiana’s teen pregnancy rate is rising faster than any other state in the nation. Whereas states like Oregon, New Jersey and Iowa have rates as low as 25.8, 18.7 and 25.3 births per one thousand teens, respectively, Louisiana’s teen pregnancy rate is far higher at 45.1 births per one thousand.

Louisiana also has dangerously high rates of sexually transmitted diseases: the state has the third highest rate for gonorrhea and syphilis, and the fourth-highest rate for chlamydia in the nation.

Notably, Louisiana is one of the few states in the country that doesn’t collect data on adolescent sexual behaviors and risk factors, but regional data from surrounding states with similar demographic profiles provides an accurate estimate. According to the Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI), a higher percentage of students in the Louisiana region have had sex sometime in their lives when compared to the national average. Further, the rate of unprotected sex among teens in the region is higher than the national average. In the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey in New Orleans (the only source of state-specific information), more than 40% of teens in the state said they didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex. Sex before age 13 and having 4 or more partners in a lifetime were also higher in the Louisiana region than in the US as a whole.

When it comes to birth control, Louisiana is far behind the rest of the nation. In the same survey from 2007, among those high school students who reported being currently sexually active, just 8% of females and 7% of males reported having used birth control pills the last time they had sexual intercourse compared to 21% of females and 15% of males nationwide.

Louisiana does not have any mandates requiring sex education in schools — the only rules in Louisiana are those requiring abstinence-only education. Schools that do offer sex education are mandated to teach that “abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children and that “abstinence from sexual activity is a way to avoid unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, including acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and other associated health problems.”

However, information taught in abstinence-only programs rarely meets the guidelines from public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control. In the CDC’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, over one-quarter of adolescents in Louisiana said they were never taught about HIV or AIDS in school.

The Governor’s Program on Abstinence (GPA) in Louisiana, which receives over $1.2 million in federal Title V Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Funding each year, has been controversial since its inception, in part, for its reliance on blatantly religious messages.  In 2002, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the GPA, saying that it violated the constitutional separation of church and state by using federal and state abstinence-only-until-marriage funds to convey religious messages and advance religion. Later that year, the two parties reached a settlement. As part of the settlement, the GPA must review lessons and curricula prior to their use and must post a statement on its website and all promotional materials that reads:

The GPA is a health and education program committed to promoting and publicizing the benefits of abstinence. Under limits imposed by the Constitution, the GPA’s funds may not be used for activities, events or materials that include religious messages or otherwise promote or advance religion.

However, in a letter to the Louisiana Governor’s Program on Abstinence (GPA), the ACLU identified numerous violations this settlement.

For example, in a section entitled “Ask the Experts,” a young woman asks how she should convince her friend to remain a virgin. The GPA’s “expert” responds, “Tell your friend that abstaining from sex until entering a loving marriage will give her the freedom to achieve (sic) true self-esteem–to be really, truly, ‘cool’ in God’s eyes as well as yours and mine.”

According to the ACLU’s letter, the website also refers readers to scripture in linked articles and includes summaries of articles that advance religion. For example, an article by the American Life League is included in the website’s “Library.” The article states, “the condom’s biggest flaw is that those using it to prevent the conception of another human being are offending God.” It continues, “Furthermore, each and every act of marital intercourse must be both unitive (sic) and open to procreation. Any action, including condom use, which has as its purpose to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.”

Louisiana’s latest proposal is a huge setback. Just last monthLouisiana Rep. Patricia Smith (D) introduced House Bill 369 to amend the current state law to require every public school to provide age-appropriate sex ed, including information about FDA-approved contraceptive methods. In an interview with The Advocate, the lawmaker said that the current lack of adequate standards is “really a form of child abuse.” In her push for mandatory sexual education instruction, Rep. Smith pointed to the high rates of STD’s and teen pregnancy as evidence that children aren’t being adequately prepared to make healthy sexual choices.

There’s concrete evidence that sex ed has a big impact on public health. Thanks to more widespread contraceptive use among adolescents, teens’ rates of unintended pregnancies, births, and abortions have all dropped to a record low. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the National Education Association all endorse comprehensive sex ed programs. Nonetheless, as Smith’s repeated fight for better sex ed demonstrates, changing these policies is often an uphill battle. Last year, just two states successfully enacted measures to expand comprehensive sex education — and others are working hard to weaken their state laws on the subject.

There’s also strong evidence that abstinence-only sex education is a complete failure. In neighboring Mississippi, where abstinence-only education is mandated by state law, adolescents are actually having sex earlier and more frequently than the national average. Predictably, they’re also much less likely to know how to avoid unintended pregnancies, which is why they have the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation. 

Across the country, states with mandatory abstinence-only education have the highest teen pregnancy and STD rates. These “sex education” courses tout abstinence as the only option, claiming that birth control and condoms are ineffective against pregnancies and STD’s. Instead of teaching teenagers that there are other, simple and effective measures, it suppresses their human nature entirely. Some abstinence-only programs worsen the situation by using shame-based tactics, telling teens that pregnancy is a sure-fire road to failure.

Abstinence is also only a short-term solution. After all, one can’t expect people to stay celibate forever, right? When teenagers who are taught abstinence-only sex education begin to experiment, they are unaware of what they should do to protect themselves, leading to more unwanted pregnancies. Abstinence-only education may even contribute to high pregnancy rates by disparaging contraception as ineffective. Believing that they are useless, teens may even neglect to use contraception and other forms of protection when they do become sexually active.

If we truly want to reduce teen pregnancy and STD rates, we must teach teens the truth. Sex education needs to be mandated in schools, and it must actually educate students on what is effective. Sex education needs to stop shaming and stigmatizing sexuality and instead teach teens the knowledge they need to make healthy choices.

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