Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Palin, shown here campaigning in Wisconsin on Friday, has said she is "opposed to explicit sex education."
Palin, shown here campaigning in Wisconsin on Friday, has said she is "opposed to explicit sex education." Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
The pregnancy of the Republican vice presidential nominee's daughter is only the latest of a number of highly visible teen pregnancies, ranging from celebrities such as Jamie Lynn Spears to a group of teens in Gloucester, Mass.
Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says she sees 17-year-old Bristol Palin's situation as a teachable moment for many. Roughly 750,000 teens in the U.S. will become pregnant this year.
"You can turn the television on any day or night and find something that allows families and communities to have a conversation with their young people," Brown says. "It allows parents to explain why 'in this family, we hope you are going to delay childbirth and pregnancy until you are older.' "
It's a conversation, she says, that parents should have with their children not once, but time and time again.
The messages in the movies, at church and in school may not be the same as the one they're hearing at home. And those mixed signals can confuse teens, she says.
"Is the message that sex is OK as long as you use protection?" she asks. "Is it that sex should be postponed until you are 22 and out of the house? In the meantime, teens are spending a lot of time together, and a lot them are grown up — at least physically."
Sex education is a highly politicized issue in the United States. Polls show that the vast majority of adults agree that teenagers should not be having sex. Most parents support some form of comprehensive sex education. But they disagree about what to tell teenagers who are already having sex.
Meanwhile, Brown says, about 60 percent of teenagers surveyed say they have had sex.
On one side of the debate, some oppose providing contraceptive information to teenagers. They just want teens to abstain until they are married.
Gov. Sarah Palin is among that group. In response to a questionnaire during Alaska's gubernatorial race, Palin said, "I am opposed to explicit sex education."
Alaska ranks in the middle of all states — 30th — in teen pregnancy. Its teenage pregnancy rate is lower than the national average, though teenagers in Alaska are just as likely to be sexually active as U.S. teenagers in general.
Three out of 10 U.S. girls get pregnant at least once before their 20th birthday. After a 15-year decline in teen pregnancies, there was a 3 percent increase in the most recent year tallied.
Most states leave the scope of sex education up to the local school boards. That's also true in Alaska, where there is no requirement that the subject be taught. Alaska's largest school district, Anchorage, emphasizes abstinence, with a program called "Abstinence Plus."
Once each semester, a teacher, student or principal can invite experts to talk to the class on reproductive health. Planned Parenthood is often invited in to do comprehensive sex education, and so is Let's Talk, a program that advocates abstinence until marriage.
Let's Talk is run by Bill Donovan, who also directs the Crisis Pregnancy Center in Anchorage. He says teenagers in Alaska are getting a balanced view of the options available to them.
"You can't say that because they are hearing abstinence education, they don't know anything about what they call 'safer sex,' " Donovan says. "They hear it from their teachers. They hear from outside groups that are invited in."
Teens from small towns like Palin's hometown of Wasilla turn up "all the time" at the Crisis Pregnancy Center, Donovan says.
"Not only that, they will fly in from the bush and the villages to come to our center," he says.
He has helped teenagers tell their parents that they are pregnant and he has counseled them on adoption. But Donovan says he neither counsels nor refers them to contraceptive services.
Reproductive health and family planning services are available through Alaska's Department of Maternal and Child Health, which is headed by Stephanie Burch. Through the agency, she says, teenagers can be directed to public health centers and private doctors in their area. She often relies on the Internet to communicate with them.
"Teenagers are pretty Web savvy," Burch says. "I get many e-mails from young women or men who are seeking reproductive health services. They can tell me which community they are from and I can connect them with either a private provider or one of the public health centers."
But confidentiality can be a challenge outside of large cities like Anchorage and Juneau, and Burch says teenagers don't always realize that the services are free.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a clearinghouse on reproductive services, Alaska ranks No. 1 in providing contraceptive services to people who need them. But Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy says such services will never stop all teen pregnancies.
"Even in the face of very good services and education, sex happens," Brown says. "Life happens."