Gallup’s 2016 moral issues poll indicates that 89% of Americans believe the use of birth control is “morally acceptable,” and their polling shows strong majority support (73%) for the availability of birth control information dating all the way back to 1959.
Two issues deemed less morally acceptable in 2016 included abortion (43% acceptable) and having a baby outside of marriage (62%). This is important because it indicates that the public would be open to a solution that could substitute birth control for baby making.
Luckily, such a solution exists, and it also helps to reduce the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections—a growing concern in South Dakota, according to an Argus Leader report from July.
Comprehensive sex education that emphasize the dual messages of delaying sexual activity and, once sexually active, properly and consistently using contraception have been proven effective at reducing teen pregnancy and STI prevalence.
A list of all the health organizations that support this sort of program would exhaust my word count, but a good example is the American Academy of Pediatricians, which issued a report in July denouncing sex education programs that don’t address the realistic consequences of unprotected sexual activity—namely, abstinence-only education.
Abstinence-only education doesn’t work. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a private non-profit, summarized the relevant research, explaining that “no study in a professional peer-reviewed journal has found these programs to be broadly effective.”
South Dakota state law doesn’t require any form of sex education, and the only federal funding the state Department of Health receives for health program implementation is both explicitly for abstinence education and transferred to the state’s Boys and Girls Clubs.
That means the specific sexual health curriculum offered in the state’s public schools—or whether such a curriculum is offered at all—is left up to local school boards, who have a million other concerns and are at the mercy of parents, among whom even a small group of detractors can make courting controversy seem far from worthwhile.
That moral values Gallup report also explains why some manner of common sense legislation hasn’t yet been introduced.
One of the more surprising results is that “sex between teenagers” was only thought morally acceptable by 37% of respondents, making it even less accepted than abortion.
Those angry parents are in that other 63%, and they more than likely complain because they feel that sex education is going to compel their children to have sex earlier than they would otherwise.
This notion goes against both statistical evidence and, really, rational thinking. Studies on the subject show little to no hastening (and, in at least one study, actually a delay) in the initiation of sexual activity after exposure to comprehensive sex education.
Beyond that, I struggle to imagine what about this information—the reality of STIs, how to use a condom, etc., presented in a clinical, medically accurate manner by an uncomfortable gym teacher—parents think is going to drive their kids lustfully into each others’ beds.
A middle school health class certainly isn’t their first exposure to the concept of sex—like it or not, the United States has a sexualized culture, and if a tween hasn’t discovered what sex is from TV or the internet you can bet they have a loudmouth friend who has.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while South Dakota’s teen pregnancy rate has declined since 2007, it has declined less than the average state’s rate over that time.
Plus, I’ve already mentioned our little STI issue.
It’s unfortunately too late for a specific statute to be introduced in this election cycle, but discerning school board votes could have positive short-term effects.
Longer term, President Obama’s proposed budget for 2017 would cut all funding for abstinence-only education, so that issue will potentially be settled at the federal level.
Ensuring an effective replacement is a taller task, and one that will continue to fall on local school boards and the biases of the parents to whom they answer.
Pro-life or pro-choice aside, it’s safe to say that the less abortions the better, even if just for the sake of reducing monetary and physical stress on young women.
STIs are embarrassing and expensive to deal with. Discomfort and fallacies shouldn’t prevent the implementation of programs that will produce improvements in these areas.
We should make it a point to elect our school boards and advocate for legislative change at the local and state levels accordingly.
Sam Williams is an English, business, and economics major from Watertown, S.D.