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Scientific sex-ed in Oklahoma leads to steep drop in teen births

Oklahoma's got a good start on reducing teen pregnancy, but there's still a long way to go.
Oklahoma's got a good start on reducing teen pregnancy, but there's still a long way to go.

The news from Tulsa County, Oklahoma, is encouraging. After implementing evidence-based comprehensive sex education programs, the county's teen birth rate dropped a full 20% in one year. According to Kim Schutz, executive director of the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, “It comes down to teens making better decisions."

Yes. Yes, it does come down to teens making good decisions, and time and again the research has demonstrated that teens with correct information make better decisions. Across the board, religious abstinence-only courses prove not to work. In one study, teens actually got pregnant more than their peers. The researchers' conclusion in that case was that the religious training probably didn't cause the increase, but clearly did nothing to prevent it. There is simply no doubt scientifically on the matter. Accurate science education works, and religious indoctrination does not.

But this study out of Tulsa means nothing without some context, so let's dig into it a little deeper. For starters, let's do the numbers. In 2012, the county had 46.8 teen births per 1,000 girls age 15 to 19. That dropped to 37.5 in 2013. It's a very significant drop, but the raw number is terrifying. In the Netherlands, where virtually all sex ed is science based, and where teens can get birth control for free (and quite easily), the rate is consistently around 5 per 1000. So let's not pat ourselves on the back just yet. After a 20% drop, Tulsa County's rate is still nearly 8 times as high as the Netherlands.

What are the costs of teen pregnancy? In Oklahoma, they're pretty high. The state spends $169 million, and that number is far too little -- pregnant teens are less likely than other pregnant women to receive prenatal care. And that's just the money. Teens who give birth are more likely to drop out of school, which all but guarantees a life of low wages and under-education -- for both the mother and the child. Teen births are a major contributor to the cycle of poverty.

Now let's talk bigger picture. This is just Oklahoma, but the issue is nationwide. Even before he was elected, President Obama was stridently opposed to federal funding for abstinence-only programs. Instead, he wanted to invest in science-based curricula nationwide. In 2012, under pressure from GOP lawmakers who would not budge on teaching religion in schools, he signed a budget extending the funding (read: wasting money) for the ineffective programs. This year, the White House has proposed eliminating funding for the programs entirely -- again. We'll have to see if he and the Democrats have enough political capital to push the budget through, but judging from the past, it seems unlikely.

Let's do some educated guesswork on how much these political maneuverings have cost Oklahomans. Assuming similar numbers since 2010 (when the president didn't even try to cut abstinence-only funding, since it was a non-starter), that's somewhere in the neighborhood of $840 million in medical care for pregnant teens. How much of this is due to either abstinence-only teaching, or lack of comprehensive? It's hard to say, but the recent one year drop of 20%, if extended across this period, would have saved taxpayers about $170 million. In a best-case scenario, if Oklahoma could get even close to the Netherlands' gold standard of 0.5%, that would free up nearly $800 million.

Of course, we're kidding ourselves if we think any state is going to get to 0.5% teen birth rate anytime soon. It's not just about the schools, is it? America is the land of Jesus and the War on Women. We haven't even begun to discuss how many of those 37 out of 1000 teens would have gotten an abortion if abortions were easily available, and if we didn't have politicians and preachers screeching at them from all sides, calling them murderers for even contemplating the idea. The teen birth rate is about making good decisions, but that isn't just about birth control. It's about what to do when birth control fails, or when you've been thoughtless.

There's plenty of science to work with here, too. It turns out, all the awful negative side effects the Christians claim accompany abortion? Not true. When women believe abortion is safe, legal, and ethical, they generally have perfectly fine experiences. The worst outcome associated with abortion is actually the judgement and censure from the community, and that has nothing to do with abortion itself.

So the news from Oklahoma is encouraging. The teen birth rate is dropping, and it's because we're teaching kids true facts about their bodies, sex, and reproduction. That's fantastic. We should certainly celebrate and encourage more schools to adopt this approach. It works. But that's not the end of the story, and we cannot expect to achieve the amazing results other countries have had if we do not address the GOP Elephant with a cross around its neck. Good outcomes for teens will require not only schools, but communities themselves to change their viewpoints, and embrace the science.

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