When 15-year-old Matthew Diaz sits in health class these days, he's isn't just learning about human anatomy or watching "The Miracle of Life." Instead, he's getting real-life lessons in what happens to kids his age if they get pregnant or father a child before they're ready.
And it's having an impact.
"All the sex-ed class videos showing 11- and 12-year-old parents at school have helped - teens are becoming more responsible," he says, rustling through the science games at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum bookstore in Washington.
Blunter sex-education classes, though controversial, are one reason that birthrates among US teens have reached a 60-year low. Since 1991, the teen birthrate has declined by 20 percent, according to figures recently released by the National Center for Health Statistics. And while experts cite a variety of factors contributing to the decline, from more education about birth control to a nationwide abstinence campaign to welfare reform, all are applauding the results.
"The good news is that it's a trend that indicates that more young people are being responsible with their sexual behavior," says Michael McGeer, vice president for education at Planned Parenthood.
Experts disagree over the primary cause for the drop, however. One factor cited by many is the campaign to promote abstinence among young people, with high-profile proponents ranging from L.A. Laker A.C. Green to teen pop star Britney Spears. Advocates of abstinence training say their message that it's "worth the wait" is clearly getting through, since statistics show teen sexual activity is down in general.
Supporters of sex education, on the other hand, point out that surveys also show more teens are using contraceptives when they make the decision to become sexually active - indicating that teaching teenagers about different forms of birth control has played a big role in reducing the number of teen births.
"It's a combination of factors," says Susan Tew, of the Allan Guttmacher Institute in New York. She estimates "a quarter of the drop in teen births has to do with a decline in sexual activity levels, and three-quarters with improved contraceptive use."
But it's still high
Still, most experts agree that the battle against teen pregnancy is just beginning. The United States still holds the record for the highest rate of teen births among developed countries, comparable to those of Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova.
"We have a lot of work to do," says Bill Albert, spokesman of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "There's not a whole lot of cause for celebration when nearly half a million teenage girls get pregnant a year."
Anti-abortion advocates point out that the teen-pregnancy rate is even higher than the teen birthrate - although it too has been declining, at approximately the same rate.
"The teen pregnancy rate is about twice as high as the birthrate," says Janet Parshall, chief spokeswoman for the conservative Family Research Council in Washington. "This means that half of the teenagers who get pregnant never give birth to a child. We need to be deeply concerned about this discrepancy."
Nevertheless, experts on all sides of the debate are determined to build on their successes. And you can hear it in the voices of many of today's teens.
"I'm not ready for [a sexual relationship] yet," says a 17-year-old boy from New Jersey. "I want to get through college before having a romantic relationship. Our parents have saved up all this money. If I had sex with a girl and she became pregnant, I would have to take some responsibility."
According to a survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the percentage of high school males who reported ever having sex decreased from 61 percent in 1990 to 52 percent in 1999.
Another survey by the group found that 58 percent of teens say high school students should wait until later to have sex, and that 93 percent of teens agree that "it is important for teens to be given a strong message from society that they should abstain from sex until they are at least out of high school."
Patricia Sulak, director of Worth the Wait, an abstinence-based sex-education program in Texas for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, says she believes the statistics indicate a cultural change is under way.
"This was not the way it was when I was in college in the '70s," she says. "I'm hoping that the sexual revolution is over and we're going to be seeing a new revolution, [saying] that sex is worth the wait."
Other experts, while agreeing teens are becoming more cautious in their attitudes toward sex, say they're also approaching it more responsibly.
"More teenagers who have had sex once or five times or 10 times are saying that they don't have to continue," says Mr. Albert. "And those that are sexually active are using contraception more carefully, particularly the first time they have sex."
A 19-year-old girl from Rhode Island says schools have taken a more realistic view by teaching preventive measures rather than only advocating abstinence.
"In school ... they know they can't stop them anymore from having sex, but they can teach the kids how to protect themselves," she says.
In fact, use of the injectable birth control drug Depo Provera was highest among 15- to 17-year-olds in 1995, according to The National Survey of Family Growth. Depo Provera is popular among teens because, for the same cost, it only requires visiting a physician once every three months rather than taking a pill every day, says Mr. McGeer of Planned Parenthood.
Teens interviewed also say being able to talk openly with their parents about sex helps promote more responsible behavior.
"There's more awareness. It's not like it was back in my parents' day, when [talk about sex] was 'hush hush,' " says teenager Benjamin Piper. "Nowadays we talk about it over dinner."
Also, both experts and teens say the media are playing a huge role. "TV [helps]," says teenager Evan Abrams from Portland, Ore. "There are the funny Trojan condom commercials, and talk shows, like Sally Jessy Raphael, that talk about people who have sex and what happens."
Even with the improvements, the US spends $29 billion a year taking care of families started by adolescents, according to the Robin Hood Foundation's 1996 report. And President Clinton recently called on Congress to spend another $25 million to set up "second chance" homes to help improve the prospects for young mothers and their kids.
"Kids having kids is a huge health and socio-economic problem," says Ms. Sulak. "Any downward trend is good. The question is, can we continue the downward trend into this 2000 decade?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society