"The data presented in this report indicate that many young persons in the United States engage in sexual risk behaviour and experience negative reproductive health outcomes." That is the very clinical and polite way a new Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reporton the rise. introduces its finding that rates of teen pregnancy and STDs are, after more than a decade of decline, once again
This news is, of course, not really news at all. When former president George Bush was still pushing for more funding for abstinence-only sex education programmes in November 2007, it was immediately after a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that comprehensive sex ed programmes – which included contraception information as an integral feature – were most effective at preventing teen pregnancy.
And that was six months after the Guttmacher Institute reported that "a nine-year, $8m evaluation of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programmes found that these programmes have no beneficial impact on young people's sexual behaviour," and three years after congressman Henry Waxman requested a report (pdf) which found that over 80% of the [abstinence-only sex ed] curricula reviewed was found to contain "false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health," effectively ensuring that pregnancy rates and STDs would rise.
It was also a year after another report found that the increased number of unwanted pregnancies was disproportionately concentrated in impoverished communities: "Women living in poverty are now almost four times more likely to become pregnant unintentionally than women of greater means."
The new CDC report notes that "Every effort was made to present the data in a consistent manner with regard to age groups, race/ethnicity, sex and geographic location," leaving an explicit investigation of poverty out of the equation altogether – though its findings indicate that American teens whose race/ethnicity and/or geographic location suggest a greater likelihood of poverty are also the most likely demographic to have increased rates of unwanted pregnancy and STDs. Both pregnancy and Aids rates are higher among Hispanic and non-Hispanic black young women aged 15-19 than any other ethnic group. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were highest among non-Hispanic black young women and men aged 10-24. And the southern states "tend to have the highest rates of negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes, including early pregnancy and STDs."
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The Bush-era insistence on catastrophically inefficacious abstinence-only programmes did not only see a race- and income-based divergence in its effects domestically, but internationally, too. Like the global gag rule, which restricted US government funding to NGOs that provided abortion counselling or services abroad, Bush's much-lauded Pepfar (President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) programme made a condition of its funding that one-third go to abstinence-only campaigns – though, in practice, fully "two-thirds of the money for the prevention of the sexual spread of HIV [went] to abstinence," with tragic results among black and poor populations in Africa.
All of which puts me in mind of a recent interview I read with US supreme court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in which she says:
Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don't know why this hasn't been said more often.
I suppose it's because the people who most have something to say about it, poor women, are the ones least likely to have access to a platform from which saying it ensures they'll be heard – possibly because they're too busy dealing with their tendency to "experience negative reproductive health outcomes", care of policies drawn by people for whom compassion was never more than just another bit of convenient political rhetoric.