September 3, 2008
Political commentators are lining up to chime in on news that Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's teenage daughter is pregnant. But an important reality is quickly getting lost in the din of political punditry: Too many young women like 17-year-old Bristol Palin are forced to make choices about their sex lives without access to honest, accurate, comprehensive information. And both Gov. Palin and Sen. JohnMcCain support policies that will further limit access to that information.
In reacting to news reports of her daughter's pregnancy, Gov. Palin described a set of emotions with which most parents can identify. "Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned," Palin said in a statement. "We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support."
The Palin family should be applauded for standing behind their daughter as she becomes a new mother -- and beyond that, everybody on all sides of the political debate should stay out of their lives.
But the McCain/Palin position on youth sexual health is both appropriate and crucial to discuss. In her 2006 gubernatorial run, Gov. Palin answered a conservative advocacy group's questionnaire by saying she would not support comprehensive sex education or access to contraceptives in schools, and that she would support abstinence-only sex education.
Such policies have already proven disastrous for the sexual health of our youth. Funding for abstinence-only sex education skyrocketed during the Bush administration, despite no evidence that it works. Study after study has since proven abstinence-only education an utter failure.
Most recently, a congressionally mandated review of federally funded abstinence programs found that the more than $1.5 billion we've spent in the last decade was wasted. Students in abstinence-only sex-ed programs delayed sex no longer and had no fewer partners than anyone else. They were however forced to make sexual choices without information about how to reduce the risk of disease and pregnancy, not to mention how to manage the panoply of emotions that accompany sex.
A recent CDC study estimates that more than one in four young women between the ages of 14 and 19 in the United States -- 3.2 million teenage girls -- is infected with at least one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. The study also found that Black teenage girls were most severely affected. Nearly half of the young Black women surveyed were infected with an STD.
In commenting on the study, Kevin Fenton, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said, "Today's data demonstrate the significant health risk STDs pose to millions of young women in this country every year." These and other recent STD findings are also clear signs that we must demand that young people have access to comprehensive sex and HIV/AIDS education.
But the now-massive mound of evidence discrediting abstinence-only education has done nothing to slow the Bush administration's ideological quest to rob everyone, young and old, of the tools needed to make informed, thoughtful sexual choices. The Department of Health and Human Services is now considering a rule change that would define many forms of contraception as abortion, and thereby allow federal grant recipients to deny clients access to them.
The vast majority of Americans disagree with these dangerous, discredited ideas, particularly when it comes to educating our youth. A 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found just 15 percent of Americans want sex education restricted to discussions of abstinence. Nearly three quarters say its "appropriate" for teens to have access to contraceptives from doctors and clinics, with or without parental approval. McCain and Palin nonetheless show every sign of continuing the Bush administration's efforts to shove ideologically driven sex education policies into Americans' lives.
Whatever choices young Bristol Palin, her boyfriend, and their families make are their own business. Sadly, these are choices that teens, often without the support of their families, have to make every day. We hope and pray that they have access to the information and support they need to make wise ones.
But the policy choices Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin make are everybody's business. We must demand that our next president ensure access to comprehensive, accurate, science-based information and to the tools necessary for all Americans to pursue healthy sexual relationships.
To learn more about the AIDS records and platforms of both McCain and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, check out the Black AIDS Institute's December 2007 report on all presidential candidates, We Demand Accountability.
Learn More at BlackAIDS.org.