California's Sex Ed Program Sees Teen Pregnancy Rate Drop By 52%

According to a report published by the Guttmacher Institute last week on May 19, California leads the way in the US, when it comes to sex education in the schools. As a result of the state's focus on comprehensive sex ed (not just sex ed that focuses on abstinence only), and other such measures, the teen pregnancy rate in CA has declined by 52% between 1992 and 2005, which is the steepest decline registered over that period by any US state (the national average drop over the same period was 37%). In 1992, CA had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. 

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The Guttmacher Institute report states: "California—the only state that never accepted federal abstinence-only dollars—has made teen pregnancy prevention a high public policy priority, with a strong emphasis on providing teens with comprehensive sex education and on fostering their access to the information and health care services they need to prevent pregnancy and protect their health. 

Although 21 other states and the District of Columbia eventually rejected the money as well (many of them not until much later), California is the only state to have never applied for its Title V grant (for abstinence only sex ed). 

Even though schools (in CA) are not required to teach sex education, HIV/AIDS prevention education is mandated, and both types of instruction are widely taught in California. According to a survey of school districts, conducted by PB Consulting and published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California in 2003, 94% provide HIV/AIDS prevention education and 96% provide sex education. Since 2004, the Department of Education has included HIV/AIDS prevention education on its list of “categorical programs” that the agency monitors for compliance. 

Even as California was moving to provide young people with more comprehensive sex and HIV/AIDS education, the state was also working to increase their access to family planning services. In 1997, California took a dramatic step by launching the Family Planning, Access, Care, and Treatment (Family PACT) program. Family PACT provides a package of contraceptive and related reproductive health services at no cost to Californians—adolescents and adults, males and females—with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level. California’s Family PACT program is notable for being the largest family planning waiver program in the nation.  

A hallmark of California’s teen pregnancy prevention effort is that for many years it has been a collective endeavor involving both the public and private sectors. Private- and public-sector involvement has unleashed tremendous creativity in the state’s network of family planning centers. 

The California experience demonstrates what can happen when there is long-term bipartisan support for a concerted, statewide effort, involving various actors from both the public and private sectors, all working in the same direction. In California, the whole of the effort clearly added up to more than the sum of its parts."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has responded today to the Guttmacher Institute report. The ACLU, while acknowledging CA's efforts at comprehensive sex ed, cites specific examples to point out the weak links in the system. 

The ACLU says: "California has one of the country's strongest laws ensuring comprehensive sex education. Back in 2003, the legislature put teen health first and passed a law requiring sex education to be comprehensive, science-based and free of bias. But even here, the stark reality is that some public schools across the state are still using abstinence-only programs.

Private, community-based organizations received substantial grants from the federal government to teach abstinence-only-until-marriage. These and other organizations have continued to present biased and inaccurate information in public schools.

We all want our kids to hold off sexual activity until they're mature and ready. But most parents — myself (that's referring to the author of the ACLU article, Phyllida Burlingame) included — want our kids to have access to medically accurate, unbiased information about sexual health. They'll need that at whatever point in their life they become sexually active. A survey of California parents found that the vast majority (96 percent) of California parents oppose sex education that only teaches abstinence. In an effort led by parents and community members, the ACLU Northern California is advocating for schools in Sonoma County — and across the state — to comply with California law by replacing abstinence-only programs with sex education curricula that teach about condoms and contraception, as well as about the benefits of delaying sexual activity.

It's biased and wrong for sex education to teach young people that sexual activity is only acceptable in the context of heterosexual marriage. We all want young people to be in healthy relationships, and we can't afford to teach misinformation about sexual health. Our young people need and deserve better."

~ Gauri