Some Wisconsin legislators are looking to alter the Wisconsin Healthy Youth Act to allow schools to emphasize abstinence in sexual education classes as the only way to avoid teen pregnancy. But local advocates of the act say stressing abstinence to teenagers will not be effective.
Emma Hynes, a Wisconsin public health professional, said the abstinence effort is misguided and could lead to health issues for teens.
“Basically, the consensus is that if you tell youth not to have sex, they’re still going to have sex, but they will just do so in an unsafe way because they have not been taught effective STD and pregnancy prevention strategies,” Hynes said. “You would be shocked by some of the myths that adolescents think are truths, like you can’t get STDs from oral sex or you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.”
The proposed Senate Bill 237 would give local school boards the ability to customize their sexual education programs and opt out of the requirement to teach contraceptive use in schools, a notable change in the state’s current law, the Health Youth Act.
The act aims to reduce risky behavior among teenagers by providing medically accurate, age-appropriate and comprehensive education. It was proposed in 2009 and enacted in 2010 after several years of increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy in Wisconsin, most notably in the city of Milwaukee.
From 2006 to 2008, teen birth rates (births per 1,000 females) among women ages 15 to 19 remained relatively high in most Wisconsin counties, with 10 counties exceeding a birth rate greater than 37.6 per 1,000 females. The highest birth rate during this time was seen in Menominee County, with 138.5 births per 1,000 women, followed by Milwaukee County, with 63.8 births per 1,000 women, according to the Wisconsin Youth Sexual Behavior and Outcomes report by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
In 2008, 1 in 12 births in Wisconsin were to teenage mothers, a 13 percent decrease since 2000. Both the state and the city of Milwaukee saw a stagnant birth rate between the years of 2006 and 2008 but at much different levels.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services report, in 2006, about 1 in 6 births in Milwaukee was to a mother under the age of 20, the sixth highest rate among large US cities. It was also 53 percent higher than the national rate.
Birth rates in Wisconsin among African-American, American Indian, Laotian/Hmong and Latino teenagers were the highest in the state in 2008. They were five times higher than the birth rates of white teenagers, according to the same report.
“It (the high birth rate among minorities) was tragically sad and unacceptable,” said Sarah Finger, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, an organization that seeks to advance comprehensive women’s health in Wisconsin. “But the Healthy Youth Act has brought Wisconsin into compliance with the standards in effective public health education set by medical professionals.”
The newness of the Healthy Youth Act limits data measuring its effectiveness, but the available statistics are favorable, especially in Milwaukee. In 2009, the teenage birth rate in the city was 41.3 births per 1,000 women, about half the rate in 2008.
Preliminary data shows a further decrease to 35.68 in 2010, according to the United Way of Greater Milwaukee website, a leading organization in the effort to reduce the city’s rate of teen births.
But despite the decrease in teen pregnancy rates, Susan Armacost, legislative director of Wisconsin Right to Life, the largest pro-life organization in Wisconsin, said school districts should be able to decide what type of sex education they teach their students.
“We feel it must be left up to the local school boards to decide whether they want to provide comprehensive or abstinence-only education in their schools,” Armacost said.
Finger said this bill comes against the advice of healthcare professionals and blames the move on the current political climate in Wisconsin and the upcoming election year.
“The legislative majority has only a small window of opportunity to push through an anti-reproductive health agenda that is out of step with Wisconsin voters and values,” she said. “Their head-in-the-sand approach is making it harder and harder for us to be our healthiest.”
Finger also said that one of the authors of the bill is a physician and that “she should know better.”
“(The Wisconsin legislature) should be able to trust professionals in the medical community in making these decisions, and the fact that we have a physician as an author of this bill is really scary,” she said.