In New York City, teen pregnancy rates have dropped 27% over the last decade. The cause, as most progressives will already know, is easy access to free or cheap contraception. New York is one of 21 states where all minors have access to contraceptive services, but they've also gone over and beyond. A pilot program in NYC has also given minors access to Plan B, a form of "morning after pill." The results have been nothing short of tremendous.
This kind of report should be no surprise to well-informed readers. Across international borders, the countries with the most access to contraception and comprehensive sex education have the lowest rates of pretty much everything, from teen pregnancy to STI transmission, and even abortions. However, there's a potential Easter Egg in the data: Well educated teens with access to contraception are having less sex! In addition to the 27% drop in pregnancy, "Sexual activity has also dropped by 26% — from 50.9% to 37.8% of public high school students."
This data, if it is repeated in other areas, could be the coup de grâce for the GOP/Christian abstinence only movement. An oft-repeated mantra is that access to contraception will be seen as "permission" and will encourage teens to have more sex. But here's a news flash for conservatives: Teens are not concerned with your permission, and condoms seem to be decreasing sexual activity in areas where teen pregnancy was out of control.
Why might this be? If condoms reduce STI transmission and prevent pregnancy, why wouldn't teens have more sex when they have plenty of condoms? The answer might, ironically, be tied to the reason we are so drawn to ineffective religious authoritarianism. Simply put, reminders of risk mediate risky behavior, and reminders of morality mediate immoral behavior.
It has been thoroughly demonstrated that test-takers, when asked to recall the Ten Commandments, or to sign an academic honesty pledge, cheat less than those who are not reminded of either the risks of cheating, or the moral virtue of honesty. Put simply, humans tend to behave better when reminded to do so. What are condoms, if not reminders of the risks of sex, and the moral obligation to prevent unwanted pregnancy? What is comprehensive sex education, if not the knowledge that condoms are not 100% effective, and pregnancy is always a risk?
This does raise a question. Why do condoms work as reminders of morality while abstinence rings do not? The answer likely has to do with the ultimate goal of each method. Abstinence rings are designed to prevent sex. Condoms are designed to reduce pregnancy and STI transmission. One of these is a very reasonable goal. The other is howling mad.
The Christian idea of abstinence outside of marriage is, let's face it, laughable. Almost no one even attempts it, and those who do usually fail. Even the most draconian religious practices do little more than force teen sex into hiding. Comprehensive sex education, on the other hand, tells teens the truth. It gives them the choice to be responsible or not, and more importantly, reminds them of the risks and moral obligations of choosing poorly. When done properly, sex education turns each condom into a reminder that sex involves risk. It calls to mind a sexual honesty pledge to have sex after carefully weighing the risk versus the rewards.
The results in New York are promising, but they've got a long way to go before they can compare themselves to the Netherlands, with their 5 births per 1000 teens, and 7 times fewer pregnancies. That would be the Netherlands, where not only do all teens have access to condoms, but teen girls are provided with long term hormonal contraceptives. Also, where STI communication among teens is near the lowest in the world.
New York offers us a strong justification for continuing to emulate the countries with the most success in reducing teen pregnancy. Rather than trying to prevent sex, they empower their teens to have sex safely. They give them all the information and resources they need to make smart decisions, and in most cases, that's what they do. It's time to abandon the paternalistic Christian model of prohibition and get on with public policy that's been proven to work many times over.