HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Government, Sex and the Tea Party

Madonna was right. Girls (and boys for that matter) just like to have fun, especially if you define fun as sex. Throughout the nation, even in the abstinence-enthusiastic Bible belt, teenagers are having sex.

And some of those teenagers are giving birth. In 2005, there were 712,620 pregnancies to women ages 15-19 in the US. A majority (58%) resulted in live births.

This is not a moral problem. Our mores about sexuality have shifted since the Puritans.

The births, though, are a social problem. Since these mothers are young, poorly educated, almost destined to be on the public dole, society has a vested interest in reducing those pregnancies.

If the Tea Party is serious about its pledge to “take back America” from governmental intrusion, it must step into the teenage pregnancy quandary: what if anything should the government do?

The Tea Party has proclaimed its disdain of government in all realms fiscal: whatever Uncle Sam is spending on, the Partiers don’t want it. Uncle Sam should sit on the fiscal sidelines.

Yet with “values,” the Tea Party has shown a confused ambiguity. Partiers don’t want government to impose “liberal” values; they want it to impose “conservative” values. School prayer, gay marriage, abortion — the Tea Partiers want government on their side, not on the sidelines. The conundrum is real: government is both their enemy and their ally.

The matter of teenage pregnancy puts the Tea Party to the test. California demonstrates the worth of government action. (Heather Boostra, Guttmacher Update, Spring 2010). In 1992 California topped the nation in teen-age pregnancies: 157 of every 1000 women ages 15-19. In 2005, the number dropped — a 52% decrease (compared to a 37% decrease nationally). Births decreased, and so did abortions. The reason: an aggressive state took not just pregnancy, but HIV/AIDS seriously.

The report documents California’s rise from the nadir. In 1992, the state embarked on abstinence-only education. Education Now and Babies Later (ENABLE) reached 187,000 teenagers, giving them 5 sessions of abstinence-only education, a media campaign (ubiquitous billboards), and activities. Three years of data convinced Gov. Pete Wilson to stop the program. When the federal government offered states money for abstinence-only education, California never applied. (Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia subsequently rejected the federal money).

Instead, California embarked on a pincer movement. It required school-based sex education to be “medically accurate” and “comprehensive.” It mandated education for HIV/AIDS. It gave low-income teenagers ready access to contraception: confidential, same-day service, regardless of immigration status. It allowed private physicians to dispense contraceptives under this program.

Three governors (two Republicans and one Democrat) kept the initiatives afloat: the social problem trumped ideological posturing. California drafted a campaign that drew bipartisan support. The result: fewer babies born to teenage mothers.

Tea Partiers should ponder the tale of California’s success. The data support a strong government presence. If, in the name of ideology, states sit on the sidelines, teenagers will have less information about, and access to, contraception. Those “sideline” states, so dear to Tea Partiers, risk an increase in the numbers of children born to teenage mothers — and a subsequent increased burden on the state’s social services, which in turn will raise taxes. (States could of course let the numbers of babies born to teenagers rise, while slashing social service spending — a Dickensian strategy.) On the other hand, if states vigorously promote contraception, more girls may delay motherhood until they can care for their children.

The party that loathes government will have to rethink its dogma.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2010 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652