McCain, Palin and Red State Failure on Teen Pregnancy
The struggles of Sarah Palin's family with the pregnancy of her teenage daughter are their business. But the disaster of the abstinence-only sex education programs she and John McCain fervently support is all of ours. After all, abstinence programs aren't merely a complete - and well documented - failure. As it turns out, teenage pregnancy rates are highest in precisely those reddest of states that vote Republican.
To be sure, the McCain/Palin ticket has a proven track record of opposing comprehensive sex education. In 2006, Palin completed an Eagle Forum questionnaire on the topic, proclaiming, "Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support." As NBC reported Sunday, the McCain campaign in November 2007 took the same position:
"Sen. McCain believes the correct policy for educating young children on this subject is to promote abstinence as the only safe and responsible alternative. To do otherwise is to send a mixed signal to children that, on the one hand they should not be sexually active, but on the other here is the way to go about it. As any parent knows, ambiguity and equivocation leads to problems when it comes to teaching children right from wrong. Sen. McCain believes that there are many negative forces in today's society that promote irresponsible and dangerous behavior to our children. The public education system should not join this chorus of moral equivocation and ambiguity."
And as the AP reported Monday, Senator McCain has a proven track record of opposing federal programs to combat teen pregnancy:
In 2006, McCain joined fellow Republicans in voting against a Senate Democratic proposal to send $100 million to communities for teen-pregnancy prevention programs that would have included sex education about contraceptives.
In 2005, McCain opposed a Senate Democratic proposal that would have spent tens of millions of dollars to pay for pregnancy prevention programs other than abstinence-only education, including education on emergency contraception such as the morning-after pill. The bill also would have required insurance companies that cover Viagra to also pay for prescription contraception.
Interestingly, McCain has experienced selective amnesia when pressed about these issues on the stump. In March 2007, McCain fumbled and stumbled when asked about grants for sex education and contraceptive instruction in the U.S. schools, answering "I think I support the president's policy" before concluding, "You've stumped me." Confronted by his past Viagra vote this July, McCain famously went silent before admitting, "I don't know what I voted."
What is not subject to the vicissitudes of John McCain's memory (or spine) is the utter failure of abstinence-only sex education programs in the United States. In April 2007, a study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. of Princeton, N.J. for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families found that children who took part in abstinence-only programs became sexually active at about the same age and had as many sexual partners as those who participated in broader sex education classes. Despite spending $176 million annually and $1.5 billion in the past decade on abstinence programs nationwide, the United States has recently experienced increasing rates of sexual transmitted diseases and pregnancy among teens. (The 3% jump in teen pregnancy rates is the first increase in 15 years.) It's no wonder that by June 2008, 22 states opted out of President Bush's abstinence education program and turned down millions of dollars of federal funding that came with it.
And as with so many measures of social pathology, teenage pregnancy rates are highest in exactly those states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004. In 2006, the Guttmacher Institute compiled data showing rates of teen pregnancy and lives births to teen mothers for each state. As it turns out, 9 of the 10 states with the highest teen pregnancy rates voted for Bush in 2004; all 10 with the highest rates of live births among women ages 15 to 19 are reliably Republican. (The Distrct of Columbia is a notable outlier.) Virtually all of them are among the 28 states which continue to receive federal funds for abstinence education.
Conversely, 9 of the 10 states with the lowest rates of teen births voted Democratic in 2004; North Dakota was the only red state to crack the top 10. (Sarah Palin's home state of Alaska is in the middle of the pack at number 23.)
Of course, a wide range of demographic, economic and other factors influence the rates of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births across the United States. But bad social policy is surely among them. And make no mistake, bad policy on sex education is exactly what John McCain and soon-to-be grandmother Sarah Palin have in mind for all 50 states.
UPDATE: The Washington Post is now reporting that Governor Palin "earlier this year used her line-item veto to slash funding for a state program benefiting teen mothers in need of a place to live."