Is the Abstinence Bill the Best We Can Do?

When 37-year-old Cherisse Scott arrives at area high schools, she offers teens straight talk on a matter many adults would rather avoid: sex education. As founder/CEO of Sister Reach, a nonprofit advocacy group that covers sexual health education for women and girls, Scott believes in presenting age-appropriate material in a sensitive way, so teens can have questions answered on how their bodies function, as well as how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.   

“I try my best not to judge them, but to encourage them to be responsible. I expect them to know about their own body. I don’t sugarcoat it,” says Scott.

However, what Scott does could be deemed illegal, should the current “abstinence bill” be passed by Tennessee legislators. Senate Bill 3310 and House Bill 3621 stipulate using abstinence-centered sex education curricula in public schools and contains an amendment adding warnings against promoting any “gateway sexual activity.” 

Is this the best we can do for our children?

While the national teen pregnancy rate a hit a 40-year low this spring, the Mid-South continues to trail far behind other states. In fact, Mississippi ranks first in teen births, reporting 55 births per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19 in 2010, more than 60 percent above the U.S. average of 34.3 births; Tennessee ranks tenth, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Tennessee Senate passed the abstinence bill mid-April. It is now in committee in the House. Said state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin the bill’s sponsor, “What we do want to communicate to the kids is that the best choice is abstinence,” he told The Tennesseean.

State Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, cast the only vote against the measure. “I think all of us realize that abstinence is the absolutely only way to prevent any kind of sexually transmitted disease,” she said. “However, young people who need education are the ones who aren’t always getting our advice.”

“We know teens are sexually active,” says Rebecca Terrell with Choices, the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health. “If we have that information and aren’t helping them with access to contraception, then are we being irresponsible as a community?” 

What are the ramifications of teen pregnancy? A recent report by the University of Memphis examining the economic impact of teen pregnancy on Memphis and Shelby County found that more than half of teen mothers fail to receive a high school diploma, have difficulty completing job training, and receive public assistance for children under 13. 

The report was done for MemTV or Memphis Teen Vision, a collaborative of social service agencies working to bring more awareness to the issue of teen pregnancy. 

Agencies like Le Bonheur, MemTV, and Girls Inc. are initiating programs to help educate teens about reproductive health but it won’t reach all students. Lynda Sargrestano, director for the University of Memphis’ Center on the Research for Women who commissioned the study says, “Here we are, going back to the dark ages. We’re going back to sticking our heads in the sand when we have a problem. They don’t want to look at the evidence. The bottom line is, comprehensive sexual education is more effective than abstinence only.”

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