Mississippi, Vanguard of Abstinence Sex Ed, Now Boasts the Highest Teen Pregnancy Rate in the Nation

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 1:42 PM EST

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Mississippi now has the nation's highest teen pregnancy rate, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control released yesterday. Between 2005 and 2006 the state's rate of teen pregnancy increased 13 percent, and is now more than 60 percent above the national average.

The report did not attempt to explain the spike, but a major factor is probably Mississippi's rejection of sex ed. The state's schools must stress abstinence and are prohibited from demonstrating how to use contraceptives. Numerous studies have found that kind of approach to be ineffective.

A common myth surrounding abstinence-only sex ed is that it works for teens who are evangelical Christians--the kids of the parents who are pushing schools to adopt the programs--so if schools would stick with the approach, the Godless masses would eventually get on the straight-and-narrow. But Bristol Palin isn't the only evidence that shreds that argument. In November the New Yorker's Margaret Talbot described the findings of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who published a book called "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers":

His findings are drawn from a national survey that Regnerus and his colleagues conducted of some thirty-four hundred thirteen-to-seventeen-year-olds, and from a comprehensive government study of adolescent health known as Add Health. Regnerus argues that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical. The vast majority of white evangelical adolescents--seventy-four per cent--say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. (Only half of mainline Protestants, and a quarter of Jews, say that they believe in abstinence.) Moreover, among the major religious groups, evangelical virgins are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, and the most likely to believe that having sex will cause their partners to lose respect for them. (Jews most often cite pleasure as a reason to have sex, and say that an unplanned pregnancy would be an embarrassment.) But, according to Add Health data, evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their sexual début--to use the festive term of social-science researchers--shortly after turning sixteen. Among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier.

IMAGE AT RIGHT: Logo for Mississippi's abstinence campaign

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And teen pregnancy isn't evangelicals' only family values problem. Talbot cites two family-law scholars, Naomi Cahn, of George Washington University, and June Carbone, of the University of Missouri at Kansas City:

In 2004, the states with the highest divorce rates were Nevada, Arkansas, Wyoming, Idaho, and West Virginia (all red states in the 2004 election); those with the lowest were Illinois, Massachusetts, Iowa, Minnesota, and New Jersey. The highest teen-pregnancy rates were in Nevada, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas (all red); the lowest were in North Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Maine (blue except for North Dakota). "The 'blue states' of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have lower teen birthrates, higher use of abortion, and lower percentages of teen births within marriage," Cahn and Carbone observe. They also note that people start families earlier in red states—in part because they are more inclined to deal with an unplanned pregnancy by marrying rather than by seeking an abortion.

So here's the irony regarding teen pregnancy:

Carbone and Cahn argue that the red-state model is clearly failing on its own terms--producing high rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, sexually transmitted disease, and other dysfunctional outcomes that social conservatives say they abhor. In "Forbidden Fruit," Regnerus offers an "unscientific postscript," in which he advises social conservatives that if they really want to maintain their commitment to chastity and to marriage, they'll need to do more to help young couples stay married longer. As the Reverend Rick Marks, a Southern Baptist minister, recently pointed out in a Florida newspaper, "Evangelicals are fighting gay marriage, saying it will break down traditional marriage, when divorce has already broken it down." Conservatives may need to start talking as much about saving marriages as they do about, say, saving oneself for marriage.

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