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Teenage births and abortions - responsibility is better than moralism

Citing a new study in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, The Globe and Mail reports that Canada experienced a significant drop (36.9 per cent) in teenage births and abortions between 1996 and 2006. This is attributed to better access to contraception, better sex education, and changing social norms, but not to a decline in actual sex among teenagers. Rather, Canadian teenagers are now more likely to use condoms and/or the contraceptive pill than was the case in the mid-1990s.

I don’t actually see anything terribly wrong - I mean morally wrong - with having a child when you’re very young or with having an abortion. In neither case are you hurting someone else (leaving aside the very brief pain suffered by a fetus if the abortion is late enough in the pregnancy). However, having a child when you’re still a teenager is highly imprudent (in modern societies where it takes so long to be qualified for most careers), and having an abortion is traumatic. It’s better for teenage girls not to be confronted with the choice of either a career-stopping event or an abortion, so it’s preferable if they are able to have active sex lives without getting pregnant. But for adults to insist that teenagers abstain from sex is unrealistic and in any event an outrageous demand - by what right do we tell young people who are biologically ready, and psychologically eager, for the extraordinary joys and pleasures of sex not to seek them? Why are we entitled to impose this burden on younger people with less power? (It’s not as if the teenagers set things up so that early motherhood is such a career-stopper. Maybe we could do something about that.) When adults talk that way, demanding abstinence, it’s pompous bullshit ... and it’s no wonder that many teenagers regard it as such.

It’s better and smarter if, as a society, we teach young people to have sex in ways that avoid pregnancy ... and to provide emotional and other support for those teenage girls who do nonetheless get pregnant. Moral condemnation and harsh treatment get us nowhere.

So, public policy should look kindly on teenage sex while encouraging teenagers to use the contraceptive pill, condoms, oral sex or mutual masturbation (as alternatives to vaginal sex), and whatever other practices are likely to make teenagers’ sexual conduct safer and less likely to lead to pregnancy. In addition, public policy should make it easy for teenage girls to get tested for pregnancy and to obtain abortions if they so desire. We shouldn’t be too solicitous of the “rights” of moralistic parents who make life hell for their children.

Above all, we should be frank about what we ask of teenagers, and should avoid loading them with moral guilt about behaviour that is very natural to them.

It seems that many people leap from the (perfectly plausible) idea that we’d like, as a society, to reduce teenage pregnancies to the (dangerous) idea that teenage sex is morally wrong. That’s precisely the wrong approach. The more successful approach is to give teenagers reliable information and encourage them to think about it and use it responsibly. It seems fairly clear that unwanted outcomes (basically, teenage pregnancies) are lower in countries that take the latter path. As suggested in the article, it’s actually better for societies to take a more relaxed, less moralistic, attitude to teenage sex. Paradoxical perhaps, but true.

E.g. compare the dramatic difference between the less moralistic Canada and Sweden, on one hand, with the more moralistic US and UK:

Among the four countries compared for 2006, Canada boasted the lowest teen birth and abortion rate per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 (27.9), followed by Sweden (31.4), England/Wales (60.3), and the United States (61.2).

The policy choice is clear-cut.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.


On the other hand…

“Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months”

“Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity, researchers reported in a landmark study that could have major implications for U.S. efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. “

One study that contradicts basically all other studies (even shows that abstinence only doesn’t affect condom use which is what you’d need if you want to reduce STDs) really isn’t going to convince anyone sensible to not require that sex education be comprehensive.

Note: I did not introduce my previous comment with: “On the contrary.” Rather, I carefully chose the words “On the other hand.” So, I don’t think I’m arguing with anon.

I agree with responsible sex education, but sex education in the UK is a mess.  I see the wisdom of encouraging children to delay their first sexual experience, and there is a certain interior logic in the view that if kids are going to have sex anyway, promoting condom-use is effective most times as a contraceptive, and around 40% of the time in preventing diseases. 

The problem is, in the UK both messages are delivered simultaneously: “don’t have sex yet, but here’s some condoms in case you do”. 

Also of concern is the age at which explicit sex-education is given.  We’ve just had two primary schoolboys convicted of the attempted rape of an 8-year-old girl; undolubtedly the “grooming” of young people by abusive sex-ed policies played a part in this.

I completely agree with this article.  Obviously what we are doing is not working.  Telling the youth they cannot have sex is absurd.  But what we can do is a better job at education, taking the time and necessary energy to provide your child with training in that area.  A properly trained person will usually not much simple mistakes like not putting a condom on.  Great article and I hope more people start feeling the way we do.

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