Here’s an important “spoiler alert” for parents in North Carolina: Congressional opposition to comprehensive sex education, and the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts, could undermine the great success that North Carolina has enjoyed in reducing teen pregnancies in recent years.
If there is one thing that most Americans, including North Carolinians, agree upon, it is the need to reduce rates of teen pregnancy. Public opinion polls, both national and state, show overwhelming support for comprehensive sex education in our schools. A 2009 poll of parents in North Carolina revealed that 9 out of 10 parents (91.8 percent) favor sex education, including instruction on birth control methods (97.1 percent).
Reflecting that broad-based support, North Carolina in 2009 passed legislation requiring comprehensive sex education in the schools, including instructions on pregnancy prevention and avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases. The law specifies that sex education must be age-appropriate, objective, and “based upon scientific research that is peer reviewed and accepted by professionals in the field.”
The 2009 law has been a great success. North Carolina’s teen pregnancy rate for youths ages 15-19 declined from 56.0 per 1,000 in 2009 to 32.3 per 1,000 in 2014. And reflecting the drop in teen pregnancies, the abortion rate for that same age group fell from 12.2 per 1,000 to 6.2 per 1,000 during that same time period. While North Carolina’s teen pregnancy rate is still higher than the national average, the gap is rapidly narrowing.
Success is great, but continued success is never guaranteed. Despite the scientific evidence and the widespread public acceptance of comprehensive sex education in the schools, it still comes under attack — at the state and federal levels — by advocates of “abstinence-only” education in the schools.
While the North Carolina legislature remains supportive of the 2009 law, Congressional opponents of comprehensive sex education may be on the verge of eliminating all federal funding for the program.
In recent years, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to eliminate all funding for comprehensive sex education, but the Senate has blocked efforts to slash funding for the program. There is a good chance, however, that the House will override Senate opposition this year and wipe out all funding for comprehensive sex education.
Defunding by Congress would have significant budgetary implications for schools in North Carolina. In Fiscal Year 2015, the state of North Carolina received $1 million in funding from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and local entities in North Carolina received $3.7 million.
If Congress cuts funding for comprehensive sex education, schools in North Carolina would still be required to provide comprehensive sex education in the classroom, but many schools would lack the funding need to fully and adequately implement that requirement.
North Carolina already ranks low on many indicators of reproductive health. An estimated 54 percent of all pregnancies in the state are unintended, and North Carolina has no laws affirming a woman’s right to emergency contraception in the emergency room. (For more information on reproductive health and rights in North Carolina, see the Population Institute’s annual 50-State Report Card).
Common sense dictates that governments at all levels should support comprehensive sex education in the schools. We are making progress in reducing teen pregnancies in North Carolina and nationally. If we abandon proven and effective sex education programs, we put at risk the progress we have made.
Robert Walker is the president of the Population Institute in Washington, D.C., where he directs its public education work and its advocacy for family planning and sex education.