“Despite hundreds of student requests for science-based programs and several parent-led initiatives for curriculum change, abstinence-based programs still dominate Georgia schools.”
The state of Georgia has a responsibility to inform and protect its young adults- a responsibility that is not being upheld to the highest degree. Instead, the controversy surrounding the implementation of sex education within schools has morphed into a political debate where the best interests of Georgia’s youth are left out of the conversation.
Decisions about sex education are made at the state and local level, meaning no federal laws direct what sex education should look like or how it should be taught in schools. Sex education in the United States is taught in two main forms: abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM), which teaches abstinence from sex until marriage as the only preventative measure for STDs and teen pregnancy, and comprehensive sex education, which treats abstinence from sex until marriage as a positive example, but simultaneously teaches students about available contraception methods.
Currently, Georgia ranks fourth in the nation for syphilis and HIV diagnoses, ninth for Chlamydia, and 13th for teen pregnancies. This could be attributed to the fact that schools themselves are not required to follow any sort of curriculum and more than two-thirds of Georgia schools fail to teach all of the recommended sexual education topics. Moreover, around half of Georgia high schools follow a curriculum entitled “Choosing the Best” which refers to an abstinence based sex ed. While sex and HIV education are mandated by the state, parents and guardians must be given notice and they are allowed to have their children opt-out. Under Georgia code 20-2-143, “Local boards are authorized to supplement and develop the exact approach of content areas with specific curriculum standards they deem appropriate. Standards must include instruction relating to the handling of peer pressure, the promotion of high self-esteem, local community values, the legal consequences of parenthood and abstinence from sexual activity as an effective method of prevention of pregnancy, STDs and AIDS.” It is left up to the discretion of local boards to determine the quality and extensiveness of sex education in their district. This inevitably leads to disparities between different school systems and their ability to combat teenage pregnancy and STDs.
The Need for Modern Sex Education
Abstinence based sex ed is outdated and in dire need of replacement. People are marrying later in life and becoming sexually active an average of 8.7 years before marriage for women and 11.7 years for men. Studies show that abstinence-only education may deter sexually active adolescents from using contraceptives, increasing their risk of STIs and unintended pregnancy. In contrast, countries where adolescents have access to contraceptives, education, counseling and medical care, have pregnancy rates that are much lower than in the United States. In a study conducted for the Journal of Adolescent Health by Laura Lindberg, a research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, it was concluded that “Promoting abstinence until marriage as the only legitimate option for young people ‘violates medical ethics and harms young people,’ because such programs generally withhold information about pregnancy and STD prevention and overstate the risk of contraceptive failure.”
Within Clarke County, taking into account only teenagers who live within the county year-round, the real teen pregnancy rate is 59 births per 1,000 teens- more than 40 percent higher than the state average of 41.3. However, these numbers have actually begun to decline perhaps thanks to Clarke County’s adoption of a “comprehensive sex education” approach. The Teen Matters Mission has so far helped to provide medically accurate information about bodily changes and different birth control methods. Additionally, the mission has worked to establish a curriculum that emphasizes building healthy relationships, making sound decisions not influenced by drugs or alcohol and providing the tools for avoiding verbal and physical sexual abuse.
The Next Steps
In order for Georgia to make a real difference in its unwanted teen pregnancy epidemic and STD crisis, the state as a whole needs to move away from an abstinence lead sex ed curriculum in favor of a more inclusive approach that fits the needs of its students. Georgia students have a right to a higher quality of sex education in order to prepare them for the future and enable them to make informed decisions.