The XX Factor

Why Are New York’s Teen Birth Rates So Much Lower Than Mississippi’s?

Hayden Panettiere talks to New York City students about teen pregnancy

Photograph by Bryan Bedder.

If you want to measure the vast and possibly growing cultural divide between red and blue states in this country, there are plenty of metrics you could use, from divorce and teen pregnancy rates to the number of people who list 30 Rock as a favorite show on their online dating profiles. Today’s news provides us with one more gauge: public school sex-ed.

Mississippi’s teen pregnancy problem has gotten so out of control—they lead the nation in teen births—that legislators there have finally cracked and passed a law aimed at improving sex education in the schools. But the new regulations kowtow so much to anti-sex radicals that it’s hard to believe that this represents any kind of improvement at all. Even though 95 percent of all Americans have sex before marriage and 99 percent of sexually active women use contraception at some point, the Mississippi law assumes that these life choices fall somewhere between “highly controversial” and “unmentionably evil.” The state’s public school sex-ed instructors are specifically forbidden to show students how to use condoms, boys and girls must be separated for class even though they’re usually together for actual sex, parents can opt out completely, and school districts were given the opportunity to choose an “abstinence-only” curriculum—which the majority of them did. Still, some schools now have more comprehensive programs that actually teach about preventing pregnancy and disease in a realistic manner, making this a small step towards progress for Mississippi.

Meanwhile, in New York City, some schools have gone beyond simply teaching about contraception to actually offering it to students. The New York Times reports today on a pilot program in 13 schools (chosen, quite logically, because of high teenage pregnancy rates and low access to contraception) that gives students the opportunity to get contraception, including emergency contraception, directly from the school or to get referrals to a local provider who can serve them better. Only 1 to 2 percent of parents opted out of the program, demonstrating that New York parents understand that you can’t unring a bell. They should tell the president, who caved to the notion that putting emergency contraception out of the reach of teenagers somehow creates a time vortex that undoes the sex that already happened.

These kinds of gulfs between communities have a real effect on health outcomes. In a place like Mississippi, where scolding kids about the supposed evils of sex is considered more important than protecting their health, the teen birth rate is 55 out of 1,000 girls ages 15-19. The state of New York’s is less than half that, at 22.6 births. 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. Improving sex education in schools can help, but what really needs to happen for better health outcomes is a culture-wide shift toward acknowledging the truth—that teens have sex—and being OK with it.

Update: Ross Douthat has weighed in—see my response.

Clarification, Sept. 25, 2012: The original headline of this post compared New York’s teen pregnancy rate with Mississippi’s. While pregnancy rates are lower in New York than in Mississippi, the substance of the post involved birth rates.