In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) determined that the national average rate of teen pregnancy (mothers aged 15-19) in the United States is 18.8 of every 1,000 live births. Teen pregnancy has affected high schools and surrounding communities for decades; however, Missouri’s rate, at 22.5 per 1000 live births, is more disappointing and concerning than most states.
Some reasons that contribute to this high rate of teen pregnancy are the prevalence of “no condom culture” and Missouri’s abstinence only sexual education in public schools. Both, in fact, have been shown to be counterproductive to the ongoing goal of reducing teen pregnancy rates. Currently, Missouri legislation only requires that public schools provide sex education relating to STDs, relationship violence and “critical thinking”, which includes concepts such as giving the right decisions when it comes to sexual health and the dangers of sexting. Unfortunately, most schools fail to sufficiently educate students on condom use, contraceptives and abortion. Missouri high schools also fall short on educating students on non-heteronormative relationships and different gender identities.
In 2018, the United States spent $100 million on funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. These programs do not give information regarding contraception and condom use, which are two powerful ways to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy. According to several studies, abstinence-only education does not decrease teenage pregnancy rates and does not cut down STI transmission rates in high school teenagers aged 15-19.
To address inadequate sexual education, the CDC named 19 sexual health and wellness topics to be incorporated into high school sex ed curriculums across the nation a couple years ago. These topics include access and use of condoms, effective communication and consent, preventative sexual healthcare and finding unbiased information regarding sexual health. Educating students from a perspective other than abstinence only enables them to make more informed decisions and would eventually reduce unwanted pregnancy rates. Across the US, different states teach these 19 points differently; some of them pick and choose between the points, and some states, like Missouri, do not fulfill the 19 point criteria in preparing sex ed curricula.
Transitioning to a more comprehensive sexual education curriculum in Missouri will enable students to make better informed decisions, prevent the spread of STDs and alleviate stigmas around sexual health, ultimately reducing unwanted teen pregnancy. By incorporating a wider breadth of topics, like effective contraception methods and how to access them, consent and a discussion about LGBTQ+ identities, as well as others, teenagers across the state would be able to make more well informed decisions about their sexual health.
Transitioning to a comprehensive sexual education curriculum has already produced extraordinary results as seen in other states. Massachusetts, for example, has the lowest rate of teen pregnancy in the US at 8.1 births/1000 females aged 15-19. Unlike Missouri, Massachusetts’ sex education curriculum requires “sexual orientation, gender identity, consent choices, reproductive anatomy, condom education, birth control methods [and] STIs” while covering but not stressing abstinence. Furthermore, according to the US National Library of Medicine, there is a relationship between increased emphasis on abstinence and increasing teen pregnancy rates (UN Population Fund). Students use contraceptives and use them correctly when they possess the knowledge necessary to make informed and educated decisions.
A comrehensive sex ed is critical for everyone, especially for teenagers to learn more about their sexual health and wellbeing in what are known to be particularly formative years. Changing Missouri’s abstinence only curriculum to a comprehensive sex education program would be beneficial for the students’ well-being for Missouri and for the United States.
Written by: Ayda Oktem
Edited by: Soyi Sarkar