Sex-Ed Cliffs Notes

NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY

Do women get pregnant because they lack information?

A few weeks ago, a study by the Mathematica Policy Research Institute concluded that abstinence-education programs do not delay the age at which teens first have sex. The response from the left was predictable: "We've spent billions of dollars and we don't have anything to show for it, so it is time for this Congress to fund programs that work," William Smith at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. told USA Today. The study's conclusion that teens in abstinence-only programs were no less likely than their peers to use contraception apparently didn't faze Mr. Smith. (Somehow they're getting "sexuality information" without benefit of formal education.)

The right, not surprisingly, remains unconvinced by the report: "Fortunately, there are 15 other studies (most appearing in peer-reviewed journals) showing that abstinence programs are effective in reducing youth sexual activity," said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Rector noted a few factors he saw as flaws in the study, including that the abstinence classes under examination were offered only to children ages 10 to 13 and there was no follow-up after that.

No follow-up? A skeptic might wonder just how many classroom hours it will take to get the abstinence message across. Teaching adolescents how not to get pregnant should take about as much time as teaching them how to make a peanut-butter sandwich. Whether you instruct them to refrain from intercourse altogether or to use a form of contraception, sex education is not an intellectual problem. And Mr. Rector does recognize this. "Abstinence education also teaches that sexual activity should involve love, intimacy and commitment, and that these qualities are most likely to be found in marriage," he explains. If the Mathematica study proves correct, though, Mr. Rector can find comfort in the fact that its results confirm a basic conservative principle—families should teach values; public schools should stick to reading and math.

This is not the sort of sentiment that sits well with feminists—or with anyone, for that matter, who believes women are the ones thinking with their heads instead of their hormones.


And what do the contraceptive-education folks spend their class hours on? As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead explained in a 1994 article in the Atlantic, sex education "sweeps across disciplines, taking up the biology of reproduction, the psychology of relationships, the sociology of the family and the sexology of masturbation and massage." The sex-ed crowd doesn't only want to prevent teen pregnancy and disease. It wants kids to feel comfortable about their sexuality.

That's something that can't happen, of course, without "information." The left charges that the right wants to keep kids in some kind of religiously inspired ignorance about their bodies. Here is a typical opinion of abstinence education offered by a sex-ed teacher in the galleys of Tom Perotta's forthcoming novel The Abstinence Teacher: "shameless fear mongering, backed up by half-truths and bogus examples and inflammatory rhetoric." Again, though, it would be hard to imagine that the vast majority of teens who get pregnant today do so because they don't understand how not to.

Yet the "information" mantra continues. In a recent column Atul Gawande, a guest op-ed writer for the New York Times, even went so far as to say that adult women get pregnant unintentionally because they don't understand how to use birth control properly. "The trouble appears to be blindness to how easy it is to get pregnant and what it takes to make birth control really work."

A surgeon, Dr. Gawande was trying to find a medically plausible explanation for the sad fact that there are 1.3 million abortions in the U.S. and that about half are performed on women over the age of 25. It's an interesting problem. Three-quarters of American women tell pollsters that they think abortion is morally wrong in at least some circumstances. The most common exceptions mentioned—rape, incest and life of the mother—are in fact the least common reasons women have abortions. So what gives?

Maybe the answer is obvious: Women get pregnant because they want to have babies. As Kay S. Hymowitz, author of "Marriage and Caste in America," puts it, "There isn't really a bright line between wanted and unwanted pregnancies." There are plenty of women who become careless about birth control on purpose. Whether they're suburban professionals with two sons who really want a daughter or poor inner-city women who hope their boyfriends will stay around if there is a child in the picture, women will often subvert their better judgment to fulfill a biological urge.

This is not the sort of sentiment that sits well with feminists—or with anyone, for that matter, who believes women are the ones thinking with their heads instead of their hormones. But according to the Guttmacher Institute, there are about three million unintended pregnancies in the U.S. every year, and six in 10 U.S. women having abortions are already mothers. More than half intend to have (more) children in the future. These ladies know exactly how one gets pregnant, and how one does not.

Which brings us back to Dr. Gawande's dilemma. A disproportionate number of poor women, it turns out, account for those 1.3 million abortions every year. But this is not because, as Mr. Smith might argue, they are disproportionately uneducated when it comes to sex and birth control. It's because, having decided to "unintentionally" get pregnant, they quickly realize that having a baby is not feasible. Whereas the suburban married professional might have to stretch her family's income a bit further to make room for an unplanned third child, the poor single woman might find herself without a man in her life four months into her pregnancy and determine that raising a child by herself just isn't an option.

Mr. Rector could conclude that the poor woman simply needs a stronger education in values. But that is not quite right, either. However unfortunate her decision to abort, the poor woman probably knows that it would be better for everyone involved if her child were raised in a stable two-parent household. She just hoped that she would have one in time. Education, it seems, can do only so much.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Naomi Schaefer Riley. "Sex-Ed Cliffs Notes." The Wall Street Journal (June 1, 2007).

This article reprinted with permission of Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal taste page.

THE AUTHOR

Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste-page editor and the author of God on the Quad; How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal



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