Bristol Palin is back in the news. The Alaska governor’s daughter became the most famous unwed pregnant teenager in America last summer when her mother was nominated to be the GOP’s vice presidential candidate. Since then, Bristol has given birth to a boy in December and the engagement to the baby’s father has ended. This week she took center stage again for promoting abstinence among teenagers as part of Teen Pregnancy Awareness Day — but she’s been greeted with howls of derision from pundits and others who think her actions are hypocritical. But before critics jump on Bristol, maybe they should consider the facts.
The majority of teenagers who have had sex regret their decision — and that’s not just those who get pregnant. We need to worry about increasing rates of teen pregnancy, which fell steadily between 1991 and 2005, but started moving up again in 2006 and are higher in the U.S. than in all other countries in the industrialized world. But pregnancy isn’t the only issue that should concern us when teenagers are sexually active, especially young teens, even if they use contraception. Most young teens are not emotionally ready to have sex, even if their hormones are telling them differently.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has been the leader in providing hard, empirical data on what works to prevent teen pregnancy and in studying attitudes among young people on the issue. (I currently serve on the board of the National Campaign, which includes a broad range of public figures, health specialists, and academics whose views cut across a wide political spectrum.) In 2007, the National Campaign published a comprehensive survey on attitudes toward sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and who and what most affected teens’ likelihood of engaging in sex. "With One Voice: America’s Teens and Adults Sound Off about Teen Pregnancy" includes some surprising findings.
Among teenagers who have already had sex, 60 percent said they wish they had waited. And 90 percent of teens say they believe that providing young people with a strong abstinence message is important, a figure not much different from the 93 percent of adults who favor a pro-abstinence message. Teens also credit parents with being the most important influence in their lives on their decisions to have sex or to delay sexual activity. Nearly half (47 percent) credit their parents with influencing their decisions, more than friends (18 percent), religious leaders (7 percent), siblings (5 percent), teachers or sex educators (4 percent), or the media (3 percent). These figures have remained consistent in all the National Campaign’s surveys.
According to the findings in this survey, which included a representative sample of more than 2,000 teens and adults interviewed by phone, both adults and teens believe it is important to discourage teenagers from sexual activity at least until they are out of high school. Eight out of 10 adults said such messages were very important, as did two-thirds of teenagers. But a majority of adults and teens also want information about contraception given to teenagers. However, nearly half of teens (46 percent) surveyed acknowledged that telling teens "don’t have sex but if you do, you should use birth control or protection" actually encourages teens to have sex.
Given these findings, Bristol Palin’s advocacy for teen abstinence is a good thing. She’s a high-profile example of why all the best-laid plans sometimes go awry. Bristol got pregnant even though she and her former boyfriend admitted they usually used contraception. She may have thought she would marry the father of her baby, but they ended up breaking up after the baby was born. And now instead of being a college freshman enjoying an active social life, she’s home taking care of her infant son.
At least Bristol has a support network to help her raise her child — many unwed teen moms don’t. If she can discourage even a few young girls from following in her footsteps, I think she deserves our praise, not the snickers she’s been getting from some quarters.