Teen mother: Utah needs better sex ed options

BRIGHAM CITY–Sarah Iverson sits at her parents’ dining room table while her animated 18-month-old daughter toddles around, chasing the cats and grouping together long, nonsensical strings of baby gibberish as if she has something very important she wants to say. Occasionally, Iverson has to stop her daughter from coloring on the walls, a new pastime the child recently picked up. Watching this interaction, Iverson seems like most young moms in Brigham City, except she is a single teen mother.Iverson, 19, grew up the youngest of six children in a middle class, two-parent family. After becoming sexually active at 16, she became pregnant just before her 17th birthday.”I just cried and cried when I found out,” Iverson said. “It’s very scary when I realized this was all going to happen no matter what.”Since then, Iverson said more and more teens she knows are getting pregnant, too. “I can think of at least 15 girls off the top of my head,” she said. “And I hear about more and more every day.”According to the Utah Department of Health’s Web site, Iverson is right. While by no means the highest in Utah, Box Elder County’s adolescent birth rate has been rising over the last few years. In 2008, Box Elder had 43.79 births per 1,000 in girls ages 15-19. This is higher than the state average, which was 33.79 per 1,000.Does this rise in teen pregnancy mean sex education isn’t doing its job? Utah state law requires that sex education curriculum stress “the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage as methods for preventing certain communicable diseases.” In addition, instructors are prohibited from advocating or encouraging the use of contraceptives. As a result, some teachers avoid the subject all together.When asked why she thought abstinence-only sex education wasn’t working, Iverson said it’s the approach. She said teens feel like adults and when they are talked to like children, they immediately disregard what they’re being taught. She said when the negative consequences of sex are made to sound so extreme it no longer seems like something that could actually happen.”They just try to scare you into not having sex and it’s laughable,” Iverson said.Not only are the consequences inflated, she said the only time contraceptives are even talked about is to give the failure rates. Iverson said this was part of the reason she didn’t use birth control. She said she felt like it didn’t offer much protection so there was no point.Virginity pledges? >>Janet Elise Rosenbaum, a postdoctoral fellow at John Hopkins School of Public Health, released a study in January 2009 comparing students who took a virginity pledge in high school to those who did not. The virginity pledge is one of the success measurements of abstinence-only sex education. After five years, Rosenbaum found that 82 percent of students who took the pledge denied ever pledging. In addition, the sexual behavior of students who pledged did not differ from those who did not in terms of premarital sex, number of partners and age when they lost their virginity. The only difference was that students who took the virginity pledge were less likely to use birth control than students who were taught comprehensive sex education.Leanne Webster, public affairs field organizer for Planned Parenthood Action Council, said this is the problem with abstinence-only sex education. Because those teens are less likely to use birth control, they have higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, teens who receive more comprehensive sex education are also more likely to delay the age at which they have their first sexual experience. The additional information empowers teens to make more responsible decisions.So what might help teens understand the consequences of unprotected sex? Utah state legislator Lynn Hemming introduced a bill earlier this year that would have established two separate sex education tracks. One would be the current abstinence-only curriculum, but the other would be a more comprehensive sex education curriculum. With this bill, parents would be able to choose their child’s track.Webster said Planned Parenthood Action Council worked hard to garner support for Rep. Hemming’s bill, which was defeated this legislative session due to a motion to strike the enacting clause of the bill. She said this could have been a good solution because it puts parents at the forefront of the issue by letting them decide what class is best for their child.More resources wanted >> “We find that many parents really want the comprehensive option,” Webster said. “Every additional resource that helps keep their kids safe and healthy is appreciated.”Iverson agrees that the two-track proposal could have been a perfect compromise. Another idea would be to invite some of the teen parents to come and talk about their experiences. She said teens are more likely to listen and respect someone who is being honest with them. Seeing a peer deal with teen pregnancy could help make the risks of unprotected sex more real for them.Iverson added that she thinks sex education should include proper use of contraceptives as well as being taught earlier, since by the 10th grade it’s often too late.”I don’t blame parents for being scared about teaching kids about condoms,” Iverson said, “but they need to be taught how to protect themselves in addition to the consequences of their actions.”As for Iverson, she is dealing with these consequences first-hand. While she said she couldn’t imagine being without her little girl, her life is definitely more difficult than it was before. Her plans for moving out with friends and attending school have been put on hold indefinitely while she raises her daughter. She said it would have been so much easier to do things the other way around, but now she’s just trying to make the best of her situation.Iverson moves from her chair to pick up her daughter, who is now throwing a tantrum because Iverson moved her cell phone out of the toddler’s reach. With a sigh, Iverson adds this caution to young girls.”If you respect yourself enough you will think your actions through,” she said. “Put effort into your own goals before getting into a serious relationship and taking the chance of becoming a parent.”

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