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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Gov. Sarah Palin has been a strong supporter of programs that advocate abstinence until marriage, and she also opposes explicit sex education. Alaska's law is silent on these issues, however, and it provides no specific funding for sex education in the schools.
Teen Sex, Sex Education And Sarah Palin
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."