How Does Birth Control Training Help A Teen Who Wants To Get Pregnant?

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The United States Department of Health and Human Services has just banned abstinence education from receiving Community-Centered Healthy Marriage and Relationship Grants. I’m not a big fan of the government getting involved in either abstinence education or birth control education, but this is pretty shocking news.

And it reminds me how a few years ago, an editor asked me to review abstinence education curriculum for a magazine. It’s not a topic that interests me normally, but I learned a great deal in reporting that story. It’s true that neither abstinence education nor comprehensive sex education are tremendously successful, although they tend to be equivalent in their rates of success. But it’s almost meaningless to study results considering the patchwork of offerings under both approaches. One comprehensive sex-ed plan might be used in only one school while another might be used in a few or more. Same with abstinence education.

But one thing that I did learn was that the approaches really target different groups. Imagine a teenage girl who lives in a community where no one goes to college and few people escape their economic or social circumstances. It’s encouraged to get pregnant not only out of wedlock but at a young age. And she’s considering it because she hopes it will secure her relationship with her boyfriend or because she feels mature enough and, with no college or career on the horizon, the timing seems right.

How in the heck would teaching her about birth control help her avoid getting pregnant? She’s trying to get pregnant! It’s not an issue of not understanding how her body works. What she needs, it turns out, is good reason to not get pregnant.

Now imagine you’ve got a young woman who wants to get into a good school and have a great career. She’s also wanting to sleep with her boyfriend but doesn’t want to talk to her parents about birth control. Teaching that girl about condoms might, in fact, help her avoid getting pregnant.

As Kristin Luker wrote in Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy, “Poor women realistically know that postponing their first birth is unlikely to lead to a partnership in a good law firm.”

Disadvantaged young women are being rational when they sense the teen years might not be the worst ones for having children, getting government and parental help at the same time. To them, the socially affluent ideal of waiting until the end of one’s fecundity to pop out some babies, provided you haven’t accidentally mistimed things, probably seems odd.

As President Barack Obama’s mother and countless women throughout history have shown, teenage pregnancy isn’t uncommon. While we now act like there’s no need to wait for an active father, a marriage or a stable family income, that certainly doesn’t mean the desire for children has likewise been thrown out.

So what do we do for teens and young women who are rationally deciding to get pregnant? Put a condom on a banana? And this helps how? Critics characterize abstinence education as a bunch of nun-like teachers repeating the mantra “don’t have sex.” But what I found, when I read the actual curriculum, was something very different. For one thing, there’s almost no mention of sex at all. It’s mostly about building self-esteem, understanding risky behavior, finding responsible partners and growing a healthy family.

One girls-only curriculum I reviewed began with a full unit about helping students see their bodies as beautiful and to accept themselves as they are. Others helped students define their values, resist negative influences, manage conflict, understand their emotions, determine how to achieve personal, academic, professional and financial goals. And it ended with a unit including mock interviews, job searches and resume writing help.

But funding for teaching these skills has been banned and now I guess we’re going to spend all of our money teaching these girls, who desperately want to get pregnant, how to take a pill every day. Again, that might be a great way to avoid teen pregnancy at an upper-middle class school filled with high achievers.

But is it a good idea for everyone?