In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that sent abortion law back to the states, the folks who believe that young people don’t know enough about sex say their point is more important than ever.
As two public health professors recently explained in The New York Times, “Limiting access to that instruction threatens the health and safety of young people, particularly those in states where access to reproductive health care is scarce in post-Roe v. Wade America.”
In other words, the reason girls and women need abortions is that they don’t know how you get pregnant.
This is the argument that proponents of more sex education were making when I was in school. It was a dubious one then, and that was before the internet. If it’s really true that parents are not teaching kids the birds and the bees — and they have somehow managed to ignore billboards, public service ads, teen melodramas, information from doctors, friends and countless other sources — they can always Google it.
In fact, though, there is little evidence that the women with unintended pregnancies are ignorant children. The teen pregnancy rate in this country has plummeted in recent years, from 61.8 per 1,000 in 1990 to 17.4 per 1,000 in 2018. What accounts for this drop? Fewer teens are having sex at all and those who are tend to use contraception, including highly effective contraception like the pill. There was a very effective public health campaign against teen pregnancy as well. This campaign did not simply emphasize the ways to avoid pregnancy. The ads also suggested that teen pregnancy was not a desirable outcome.
“Think your life won’t change with a baby?” one ad advised, as a teenage boy is shooting hoops with a baby carrier to his front. Another shows a teenager as a puppet being controlled by a disproportionately large baby. The point of these ads was to persuade teens that they didn’t want a baby because many of them actually did.
And even when teen pregnancies were much more common, there was little evidence that this was because teens didn’t understand how to get (and not get) pregnant. It was more than a little patronizing to assume that teens from what were often poor and minority families could not manage to grasp the basics of human reproduction.
In fact, the vast majority of abortions in this country are sought by women over the age of 20. These are not women who don’t know how sex works or how one gets pregnant. These are grown women, sometimes in relationships, sometimes in relationships that recently ended, who decide that, for one reason or another, they don’t want to carry the pregnancy to term.
In his book “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman concludes that there is “scant evidence to suggest that (sex education) affects teen pregnancy or venereal disease rates.” Indeed, he writes, “scholars around the world have struggled to show any significant influence of sex education upon youth sexual behavior.”
There could be any number of reasons for this. Teenagers don’t have much interest in what their teachers say, compared with what their peers or their families are telling them. Our public school systems are failing to teach math and reading. What makes us think they are better at sex ed?
But the folks who want to bring more sex ed into classrooms are not just interested in the basics of contraception anymore. As The New York Times authors noted, “high-quality sex education decreases intimate-partner violence, as well as homophobic bullying and harassment. It promotes healthy relationships and helps prevent child sex abuse by increasing skills to identify and report such offenses.” No doubt it can also teach kids about gender fluidity, polyamory and the joys of dressing in drag.
None of these things, of course, has anything to do with more restrictive abortion laws, or even preventing pregnancy at all. The Dobbs decision is just the latest excuse for these folks who want to expose kids to more sexual material to push open the schoolhouse door just a little further.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.