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Abstinence, Abortion Rates & America’s Disastrous Sex Education

Incomplete sex education programs don’t always lead to pregnancy or abortion. However, research shows these factors are highly correlated.

In light of recent legislation passed in Alabama, Georgia and Missouri to essentially ban abortions and place harsh restrictions on women seeking to terminate their pregnancy, it is worth paying attention to the context that led us here. How our country’s conservative attitude towards sex and positive views of religion and family relates to the education children are given in school and the laws that are instituted.

What is the widespread impact of a society where sex is taboo and babies are desired?

Less than ten years after Roe v. Wade, the first abstinence education program was passed by Congress. Formally known as the Adolescent Family Life Act, the AFLA implemented religious doctrine in its public school teaching of chastity and self-discipline, paving the way for other laws pertaining to abstinence. In 1996, Title V of the Welfare Reform Act was enacted to set up a system of grants for states providing abstinence-only-until-marriage education. Since then, a number of government-sponsored acts across the country have been stressing the importance of teaching children and teens abstinence. Trump has once again garnered government support for lessons on abstinence by rolling back Obama-era progress, which cut federal funding for abstinence education.

But what is abstinence-only education, and why is it not in the public school system’s best interest to implement it?

Legally, abstinence education should adhere to the following guidelines:

Courtesy of US National Institute of Health.

Over the years these tenets and the teachings they inspire have drawn criticism for their ineffectiveness, medical inaccuracy, hurtful nature and their tendency to withhold or distort health information.

Many abstinence-only institutions are dead set on misinforming students about the risks involved with sex, and their value when they lose their virginity outside of marriage. Some organizations go as far as to attack comprehensive sex education itself, falsely claiming that proper sex education exposes young children to inappropriate, even scarring subject matters.

An example from Stop CSE, an online petition started by the company Family Watch International, based in Arizona, that argues comprehensive sex education is harmful to kids.

There are countless horror stories of instruction evolving from a simple message of “don’t have sex”, to slut-shaming students through tape metaphors, comparing kids to chewed up pieces of gum, and telling girls through sexist rants to “keep their legs closed.” Some schools even have students sign abstinence-only contracts. The fact that many people reading this will be able to relate to these experiences shows just how deeply abstinence-only education has permeated society.

GIF courtesy of

These lessons generally don’t serve an educational purpose; rather they are meant to be moral and religious propaganda fed to teenagers through shaming and fear tactics. They aim to make kids uncomfortable about their bodies and sexualities outside of the constructs of heterosexual marriage. These types of mentalities are especially harmful to victims of rape raised to believe the forcible act has rendered them societally worthless. Possibly worse yet, abstinence-only education leaves students woefully unprepared— risking their physical and mental health. 

Currently, only 24 states mandate sex education in some form. 37 states require information on abstinence be provided, with no obligation to be medically accurate, and even allow parents to opt their children out of some programs. 48 states have no restrictions to prevent the promotion of religion through sex education. An overwhelming majority of states don’t give information on condoms or contraceptives.

Out of the states that have no HIV or sex ed requirements, some are far worse than others. Texas, which reported 53,940 legal abortions in 2015, was ranked as the worst state for sex ed. (Unsurprising coming from a place where guns are more acceptable than dildos.) The state stresses abstinence until marriage and has no required sex or HIV education. Similarly, Georgia, which has the sixth highest abortion rate in the country, doesn’t demand information be given on contraception, healthy decision making or sexual orientation.

Research has proven that an emphasis on abstinence and restricting access to legal abortion don’t reduce abortion or pregnancy rates. In fact, the decline in abortions within the past decade is actually due to an increase in available methods of contraception, which are explained or even provided in comprehensive sex education lessons.

“An educator told a group of teens that [condoms] aren’t that effective. Like, WHAT? Imagine being in a driver’s ed class where the teacher tells you that seat belts aren’t that effective.”

Comprehensive sex education is the forgotten middle ground between abstinence and abortion, even if people can’t see it yet. 

A truly comprehensive sex education course is LGBT-inclusive, it covers consent, contraception, how to make informed decisions as well as where to access necessary knowledge and medical care. Comprehensive sex education, by normalizing the act of sex and removing taboos and stigmas, allows students to feel like they can seek help or advice.

Comprehensive sex education, despite what religious zealots and conservatives say, has proved to significantly decrease abortion rates. Even though it goes against certain societal taboos and religious beliefs, it is the most effective option to combat teen pregnancy, abortion and the spread of STDs/STIs. As far as more inclusive sex education goes, the country has much progress to make. The same nonsecular teachings that chastise those who abort and engage in premarital sex, also stigmatize LGBT sex. There are no laws saying public schools can or should teach sex ed that is encompassing of the queer community.

It isn’t until recently that Alabama made a motion to strike the following anti-LGBT sentiment from its sex education content, course materials, and instruction provided to public school students:

(8) An emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.

Just this year education leaders in Arizona were sued for barring the “promotion” of a “homosexual lifestyle” in HIV/AIDS instruction.

Similar to women having abortions, sex is going to continue among teens and unmarried people regardless of the prevailing religious beliefs or laws set in place surrounding sex education.

People might as well informed on how to have sex safely to decrease the danger of transmitting infections and becoming unintentionally pregnant.

If legislation is based on a pro-life stance, then education should reflect that. Sex education should advocate for the lives of mothers and those having sex. School should teach students how to defend life after conception, those conceiving and not conceiving. Society should be pro-black and pro-immigrant, pro-LGBT, pro-poor and pro-disabled people. Unborn life shouldn’t be the only life protected. 

The hypocrisy of conservative white men in Alabama’s Senate voting for a “pro-life”, anti-abortion bill after backing legislation detrimental to humanity, such as repealing restrictions on gun ownership and denying SNAP benefits to those struggling with addictions, shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

For more information on safe sex, birth control and abortion procedures, visit the Planned Parenthood website.


Featured Image Via Marielle Devereaux

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