MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris. As Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin, has been a strong supporter of programs that advocate abstinence until marriage, the vice- presidential nominee also opposes explicit sex education. But Alaska's law is silent on these issues, and it has no specific budget line for sex-ed.
The issue is under the spotlight because of the pregnancy of Palin's 17-year- old daughter. As NPR's Brenda Wilson reports, states across the country are still struggling with the question of what to tell teenagers about sex.
BRENDA WILSON: Teen births in the U.S. have been declining for a while, but for the first time in 15 years the rate of teen pregnancy was up three percent last year.
As Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy points out, 17-year-old Bristol Palin is one of about 750,000 young teenagers in the U.S. who will become pregnant this year. Her pregnancy is only the latest in a number of highly visible cases.
SARAH BROWN: We had Jamie Lynn Spears. We had the teens in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and you can turn on the television any day or night and find something that allows families and communities to have a conversation with their young people and say, I want to talk to you about - once again, not just one conversation, many - why in this family we hope that you're going to delay pregnancy and child-bearing until you're older.
WILSON: Especially since the public debate is often rancorous and can send confusing messages to young people.
BROWN: Is the message that sex is okay as long as you use protection? Is it that sex should be postponed till you're, I don't know, 22 or out of the house? Meanwhile, they're spending a lot of time together. There are a lot of them, you know, fully grown up, at least physically.
WILSON: She says most Americans agree that teens should not be having sex. They just can't seem to agree about what to tell the teens that are having sex. Most states leave that decision up to the local school boards.
That's true in Alaska. There's no law requiring sex education. Its largest school district, Anchorage, emphasizes abstinence. It's called Abstinence Plus. Once a semester, a teacher, a student or principal can invite experts in to talk to the class on reproductive health.
Planned Parenthood gets invited in to do comprehensive sex education, but not as often as Let's Talk, an abstinence-only-until-marriage program that is run by Bill Donovan, the director of the Crisis Pregnancy Center in Anchorage.
BILL DONOVAN: Kids are - most of them are hearing both messages. You can't say that because they're hearing abstinence education, oh, they don't know anything about what they call safer sex, you know? They hear it from their health teachers. They hear it from outside groups that come in, just as we are an outside group that's invited in.
WILSON: Teens like Palin's daughter, who live in small towns like Wasilla, about an hour north of Anchorage, often turn up at his Crisis Pregnancy Center.
DONOVAN: All the time. Not only that, they'll fly in from the bush, from the villages, and come to our center.
WILSON: As for contraceptive services for teens, he neither counsels nor refers them. But Stephanie Birch(ph), the director of Alaska's Maternal and Child Health Department, says there are public health centers and private doctors that she links teens to via the Internet.
STEPHANIE BIRCH: Teenagers are pretty Web savvy, and so we have a lot of our services on our Web site. We also have a confidential e-mail, and I get many e-mails from young women or men who are seeking reproductive health services, and they can tell me which community they're from, and I can connect them with either a private provider or one of the public health centers.
WILSON: According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a clearinghouse on reproductive health services, Alaska ranks number one in funding contraceptive services for those who need them. Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy says that just goes to show you...
BROWN: Even in the face of very good services and education, you know, sex happens. Life happens.
WILSON: Brenda Wilson, NPR News.