Teen pregnancy has declined in the US, but it's hardly gone away. And neither has a fundamental problem faced by parents and schools over how to teach teens about avoiding pregnancy without also sending a message that teen sexual activity is OK.
Disputes cannot be allowed to obscure the obvious progress. Still, four out of 10 teenage girls in the US still become pregnant before age 20. And the US continues to have the highest rate of teen pregnancy among developed nations.
And while sexual activity has decidedly declined among teens, for those under 15 it has not. One 1999 survey showed a 15 percent increase in students who say they've had sex before age 13.
Such a trend speaks to the need for new ideas - especially in reaching adolescent boys - and a broader consensus on what works. Do abstinence programs cut pregnancy rates? And does offering contraceptives to teens encourage sexual activity?
Common sense would suggest that making contraceptive know-how available would be taken as a green light for sex by teens. But a survey of some 250 prevention-related programs by a nonprofit group, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, finds that sex education that includes contraception instruction does not "hasten the onset" of sexual activity, or increase such activity.
A poll of adults by the same group found a large majority who say teens should not be sexually active, but if they are, they should have access to, and instruction about, contraception.
At the same time, more than 9 out of 10 adults and teens favor abstinence messages for teenagers. That could be taken as bolstering a likely move by the Bush administration to boost abstinence-only programs.
But the understandable ambivalence Americans feel about this issue can't be resolved by federal policy. Teens themselves must be mature enough in judgment to realize they may not be mature enough to bear the consequences of sex and early parenthood.
That's a difficult point to reach, just as it's difficult for adults to both advocate abstinence for teens and be practical with those who are sexually active.
If the goal is fewer teen pregnancies, then that's best served by promoting the value of keeping sex within marriage and adulthood, while carefully considering ways to offer options for contraception for those teens who seem set on sexual activity.
Framing the debate simply as abstinence versus contraception only hurts efforts to reduce teen pregnancy. And what's more, it seems to focus sex education too much on girls. Teaching boys to resist peer pressure to become sexually active as a badge of "manhood" needs more emphasis.
And parents, counselors, and clergy all need to help teens offset the sex-laden messages in popular media. Teens need consistent guidance to develop self-confidence and an understanding of morally responsible behavior (including the better choice of abstinence). That's no small task, but one with big potential for good.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor