October 9, 2012 10:51:24 AM
In Sunday's Dispatch, reporter Sarah Fowler tackled a problem that has reached epidemic proportions in Mississippi -- teenage sex.
That problem manifests itself in burgeoning teen birth rates and sexually-transmitted diseases, areas where the costs to both the individual -- and in many cases the state and federal government -- are high.
As it was reported, the New York school system has responded to the desperate circumstances with desperate measures, dispensing Plan B contraceptives (better known as the Morning After Pill) to its students without requiring parental consent.
In Mississippi last year, 5,459 (almost 14 percent) of the state's 39,825 births were to teen mothers. Given the scope of the problem, it was a natural question to ask Dr. Martha Liddell, the superintendent of the Columbus Municipal School District, if the time has come to provide birth control to Columbus students without regard to parental consent.
But Liddell said the idea of providing birth control to students isn't even a part of the discussion.
"That's not our purpose and not our role as a school district," Liddell said. "That's not a business this school district wants to be in. That's something that should be left to the parents."
Yet three in 10 students in Columbus drop out of school before earning a high school diploma. A good many of those dropouts are teen mothers. With all due respect, that makes it very much the school district's business.
Those who argue against providing birth control to students without parents' consent primarily cite two reasons: They object because it subverts parents' rights to make decisions affecting their children's health, and they object on moral grounds.
But if parental consent were "the answer," providing contraception without parental consent would be a moot point on the theory that Mary generally doesn't ask mom for her permission before having sex with Johnny.
As for the moral objection to providing birth control without parental consent, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests the moral approach is ineffective. Mississippi is perhaps the most overtly religious state in the country; it is also the state with the highest teen pregnancy rate. Attempt to explain away that paradox as much as you like. The fact remains that teens often exercise poor judgment and make decisions that are contrary to their upbringing or best interests.
The state's response to the matter of sexually-active teenagers has been a timid one, especially when measured against the gravity of the problem, as indicated by the numbers. This year, in addition to the time-honored and thoroughly ineffective "Abstinence Only" programs taught in schools, the state gave districts a choice of teaching "Abstinence Plus," which informs students about the hazards associated with being sexually active.
It will be interesting to compare the teen pregnancy rates of those districts that chose "Abstinence Only" to those which chose "Abstinence Plus."
While "Abstinence Plus" is a meek step in the right direction, Mississippi's approach to the problem should be far more aggressive than simply offering a few statistics during six weeks of health class.
Bring in real teen moms to talk about what it means to be a teen mother rather than the romanticized version they see on cable television "reality" shows. Let them see what being a teen mom does to a young woman's economic and educational prospects, her relationships, her self-esteem.
Teen pregnancies are disproportionately higher among the poor, which means the birth of a child, no matter how much it is loved, often puts the poor teen parent in a economic hole that is virtually impossible to escape. Show them the stark numbers and debilitating effects of STDs. Demand that students who are sexually active take the necessary steps to protect their health. Provide them with contraception if they ask for it, no questions asked.
Tell them. Show them. Equip them. Empower them.
"Abstinence Plus" is better than "Abstinence Only." Even better: "Abstinence Plus Everything." There are few choices in life that suffer from knowing too much. Until we are prepared to do everything humanly possible to stem this tide, the problem will not only persist, it will grow.
Yes, there are a couple of reasons some people object to permitting schools to provide birth control without parental consent.
Last year in Mississippi, there were at least 5,459 reasons they should have.
Slim Smith is the managing editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.