By Kari Petrie
Wednesday, March 14, 2001
A 17-year-old Minnesota commentator says most students welcome sexuality education, openly scoff at abstinence-only programs and believe the government should stay out of young women's reproductive lives. But abstinence is okay, too.
COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. (WOMENSENEWS)--A self-proclaimed 29-year-old male virgin told my eleventh grade health class about celibacy, chastity and abstinence. He was greeted with catcalls and insults from the guys in the back of the room when he lectured about the importance of remaining a virgin--and only paused when one student called him a stud.
Young women in the class were silent and polite, but most of them said later that abstinence-only education was unrealistic.
For Park High School students, in a suburb of St. Paul, abstinence is a silly idea. These 1,800 students spend most of their teen-age lives in this quiet, predominately white (only 7 percent belong to a minority group) community.
The threat of teen pregnancy is something students talk about, but it will never happen to them--or so they think.
Teen pregnancy, however, is a reality. Statistics from the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention, and Parenting, show that 66 percent of teen women nationwide are sexually active by the time they are seniors in high school, or by the age of 18. Twenty percent of those girls, according to Planned Parenthood, become pregnant and half of those will give birth. Of the rest, 40 percent end in abortion and 8 percent end in miscarriage.
In my own county, 95 high school-aged girls became pregnant in 1998. Forty-eight of them gave birth. It's weird to look around my school and see these young women who are pregnant.
One would think that at this point in our lives the worst problem we should have is wondering which college we are going to attend, not how we are going to afford to support a child.
Many teens have to face this question, along with problems of drug or alcohol use and abuse--with little support from those around them.
As a teen, I think the government does not care when my peers and I start making poor decisions like drinking, taking drugs or having premarital sex. Most groups that have the strongest influence over teens are not government-run.
I hear a lot of talk and a lot of noise, but I see little meaningful action. An example of effectiveness is MTV's year-long program called "Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Discrimination." By sharing stories of people hurt due to discrimination and by allowing people to send messages to the president and Congress, this program works to get young people involved with their government to end hate crime. MTV has even given special time slots to present shows about this problem and to tell the stories of those who have been affected. They have also worked to get over 3,800 signatures on a petition to get the Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed.
Our government, however, seems to be unable and unwilling to get the attention of teens in the same way--or any other way. They just don't seem to be concerned. As soon as someone gets pregnant, however, it seems that everyone feels it's their right to put in their two cents.
I wonder: When was the last time some of these people were pressured to have sex by their boyfriends, were raped or became unintentionally pregnant.
This question--whether critics really know whereof they speak--applies to government officials, bureaucrats and lawmakers.
Since Republicans have taken control of the White House, they have been determined to further restrict already restricted reproductive rights. President Bush made clear that limiting women's rights to privacy was a top priority when he reinstated the Reagan-era Global Gag Rule, banning government funds to abortion counseling and lobbying by international organizations using their own funds.
Many young women I know feel that the government may be going too far with its anti-abortion agenda.
"It's not the government's business what a woman decides to do with her body. It's an implied right if you ask me, there shouldn't even be any legislation having to do with (abortions)," said Mary Kate Erickson, 17, a junior at Park High.
Right-wing conservatives also think that by teaching abstinence in schools and limiting who can have an abortion, they can stop pregnancy among teens.
I question this notion. It's like telling a 2-year-old to not touch that pretty crystal bowl on the coffee table: You can tell them "no" until you are blue in the face, but that child is still going to touch it.
This new abstinence-based form of teaching sexuality education has been proposed to many schools in the past several years. At my own school, two presenters were invited to discuss sex and sexuality from two opposing viewpoints.
As I described above, one man discussed abstinence and a woman from Planned Parenthood discussed contraceptive use to prevent teen pregnancy. Both speakers made interesting and significant points. As a result, my knowledge about contraceptives was expanded.
Also, these discussions confirmed my feelings on respecting my own body by being abstinent until the right man comes along.
It didn't take a genius, however, to figure out that the message of chastity was not getting through to all of my class. Ridicule and name-calling are not usually signs of comprehension. Since my school has started implementing abstinence-based education, many students have questioned its effectiveness.
"Kids don't look at the school as a role model. They form their views from what their peers are doing and what the media says," said junior Jessi Klein.
"It's unrealistic to think that no teen-agers are going to have sex, and (schools) need to recognize that and be aware that they need to teach about other forms of contraceptives in case people do decide to make that choice," added Mary Kate Erickson, a junior.
One thing is certain, though: Only with accurate information on sexual health can the number of teen parents go down. Statistics from the 1950s and 1960s support this, because little accurate and useful information about sexual health was provided during those years. Because of this lack of information, the birth rate among teens was at its height.
The highest recorded birth rate in the country was in 1957 when 96.3 per 1,000 women, aged 15 to 19, became pregnant, according to the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting. The 1998 birth rate was 30.6 per 1,000. The main reasons are that the pill had not yet been introduced and abortion was still illegal. It wasn't until the early 1970s, after the pill had been widely introduced and the Supreme Court legalized abortion, that teen pregnancies and births went down.
In the next four years of the Bush Administration, Americans may see a huge, negative shift in reproductive rights for women. With the appointment of extremist John Ashcroft as attorney general, the monumental Roe v. Wade decision might be overturned.
Planned Parenthood even opened a website called "roevbush.com" to resist and counteract this possibility. They believe that now is the time for women to take a stand for their personal rights and to fight to retain and expand what this generation's grandmothers won for them years ago.
Whether pro-choice or pro-life, high school students all seem to agree that a woman should have total control over her body.
"I don't think (abortions) should be illegal, because part of our country is about freedom, but I don't agree with it," said Erica Kerr, a Park High 18-year-old senior.
And, frankly, she's right. Abortion is a freedom and now is the time for President Bush to come face-to-face with a new generation of feminists and realize that we won't be so easily controlled by his conservative views.
And maybe next time the so-called "real studs" in the back of the room won't be so quick to judge others and instead will think of the importance of the message of a different approach to sexuality.
Kari Petrie is a senior at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minn., and plans to attend the University of Minnesota next year to major in journalism and political science. She writes a column about teens' point of view for the South Washington County Bulletin and for her school newspaper, the Wolfpack Press.For more information, visit the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Parenting: http://www.moappp.org/.
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