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Bristol Palin Says to Teens: Don't Get Pregnant

Bristol Palin may be way ahead of her mom when it comes to one of the country's most controversial issues.

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The "daughter-of-abstinence-only-politician-gets-pregnant" scenario might just be fodder for comedians if not for the stark realities.  The situation is deeply emblematic of what the evidence has long told us about the efficacy of abstinence-only programs: They don't work. 

Research findings, government policies and funding of abstinence policies have been well-covered on RH Reality Check, including a recent article by Scott summarizing findings of a Johns Hopkins University study on the failure of virginity pledges, a popular aspect of abstinence-only programs.  Extensive coverage of such programs domestically can be found on the websites of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, the Guttmacher Institute, and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, among other sources. 

Among credible researchers, there simply is no dispute: Well-designed comprehensive programs simultaneously encourage delay in sexual activity and teach adolescents how to practice safer sex thereby preventing both unintended pregnancy and infection.  Abstinence-only programs leave them vulnerable. 

That Bristol and Levi became sexually active, were unprotected and ended up having a child before they planned to do so is not a surprise ... it is somewhat predictable given what we already know about abstinence-only in reality.  That they made the choice to have their child and so quickly become adults and parents while also trying to finish high school degrees also is their basic right, and we celebrate the fact that they can exercise these choices.

Indeed, we celebrate the healthy and safe arrival of baby Tripp and wish him, his parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles, and his extended family only the very best.

But something in Bristol's statement implies a different take on the situation ... she is telling teens to prevent pregnancy in the first place, and by doing so at least implicitly suggesting that they be able to exercise responsible choices if and when they engage in sexual activity. Maybe Bristol is way ahead of her mom.

So it is fair to ask whether this most recent and very public journey for a young couple has caused Governor Palin, her supporters or other advocates of abstinence-only to reconsider their position?  If we all prize having individuals wait until they are really ready to parent, and make concious decisions about doing so proactively, then this alone is a case for realism in policy and practice. 

There is no immediate answer to this question.  Indeed, nothing in Governor Palin's own statement either reaffirmed her belief in or challenged abstinence-only programs.

But it is worth asking, if for no other reason than Governor Palin has made clear she intends to remain on the national stage.  And the United States still funds abstinence-only programs domestically and through our global AIDS funding abroad.  Programs that leave people vulnerable and waste taxpayer dollars.

We invite those who continue to support abstinence-only programs to share their thoughts on where this situation places the debate.  The evidence is clear.  The Palin's story unfolding in the national press puts the data in the context of personal history.  And yet the broader implications of the dichotomy between personal experience and political philosophy remains relatively unexplored.

So we ask this: why, in the real world, does anyone still defy the evidence?  In this real world in which we live, some 600,000 women die annually -- and many times that number suffer illness and disablity -- from complications of pregnancy and unsafe abortion.  They do not have access to safe delivery services or emergency obstetric care because it is not a high priority to provide them with these services.  In many of the poorest countries of the world women continue to bear a higher number of children than they desire due in large part to lack of choice over childbearing and lack of access to contraception, because it is not a high priority to change these circumstances.  They have decided they lack the means to "provide a loving and secure environment for their [next] child" and so many risk their own lives in unsafe abortions to end unintended pregnancies.