The XX Factor

Ross Douthat Says New York “Solves” Its Teen Pregnancy Problem With Abortion

@DouthatNYT (aka Ross Douthat)

Photograph by Josh Haner/New York Times.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times took to Twitter this afternoon to denounce my post comparing teen birth rates in Mississippi and New York, and looking at the way sexual health outreach in public schools reflects the different cultures that give rise to those rates: For a moment, I wondered if I had left a dangling participle in the post, but I soon learned that he was referring to the word that is first in his thoughts when he wakes in the morning and last when he goes to bed at night: abortion. (For those who wonder if the same is true about me, the words are actually “coffee” and “iPad” respectively.) It is true that I did not see fit to mention abortion in a post about the contraceptive amenities available through our public schools. While I’d love it if public schools would offer discreet, safe abortion services to students in need, I don’t imagine that’s going to happen in my lifetime, if ever.
But Douthat apparently believes I have misled you with the omission, and ascribes the whole of the difference in sexual health outcomes to the higher abortion rate in New York: It is true that teenagers are much more likely to get an abortion in New York than Mississippi, in part because we have more abortion providers in a single borough of New York City than they have in the entire state of Mississippi. But the unwillingness of New Yorkers to force teenagers to give birth against their will just goes back to my original thesis, which is that better sexual health outcomes are about the culture at large, and can’t be completely turned around by a quick fix like improved sex education in schools. I hate to quote myself, but: These kinds of differences aren’t just a matter of sex education, especially since some schools in New York have the same kind of poor in-class sex education as schools in Mississippi. Some differences can be chalked up to the cultural values kids learn in school, at home, and in the community at large. The sex education available is simply a reflection of these kinds of community values.
Mississippi ranks No. 3 nationally in syphilis,  No. 2 in chlamydia, and No. 1 in gonorrhea. That can’t be written off as the result of noble Christians facing up to their duty to breed for God and country. Instead, a high teen birth rate and a high STD transmission rate in Mississippi are likely rooted in a cultural unwillingness to deal honestly with the fact that people are having sex, and that they need access to both prevent and to fix negative health outcomes that result from it. Better sex education and more clinics will help, but in the long run, what Mississippi needs most is to start believing that people’s health and lives matter more than reinforcing hostile attitudes toward sexual choices people have already decided they’re going to make.