No Dent at All in Teens’ Birthrate : Wilson ends educational program found to be ineffective


Add Pete Wilson to the long list of policymakers and health educators scratching their heads over how to prevent boys and girls from becoming parents. The governor terminated his ENABL program last week and is to be forgiven if he is frustrated over a problem that seems to defy solution. The issue clearly is not one that could have been fully addressed by the state’s five-hour educational curriculum. Beyond the classroom, teenagers remained bombarded by the sexual messages that pervade popular culture.

The stigma of teen pregnancy has eased markedly over the last few decades. At one time, parents whisked pregnant daughters off to homes for unwed mothers; now, at some high schools, students can leave their babies at campus day-care centers. Such toleration, some social critics say, has helped make mothers of many girls who were ill-prepared for the burdens involved.

The number of births to California teens is the highest in the nation and the per capita rate is above the national average. The cost of those babies is great, in both disruption to their parents’ lives and social and educational services.


Wilson had hoped ENABL would make a difference. Launched in 1992, the Education Now and Babies Later program was designed to teach 12- to 14-year-olds how to delay sexual activity by resisting peer pressure. Close to 312,000 students statewide completed the curriculum. Rather than emphasizing information on contraception and other reproductive subjects, it focused on talking kids out of engaging in sexual activity.

ENABL was offered on a voluntary basis to students at schools and in community groups and was presented by outside contractors.

After a 17-month evaluation showed no statistical difference in pregnancy rates for ENABL students, Wilson decided to scrap the program. The governor no doubt recognized that his approach, based largely on exhortation, could go only so far. One negative effect on this and similar programs has been the opposition of some parents to public instruction about sexuality.

The governor says he will soon outline a program to replace ENABL. Because few health educators urge a return to the ignorance of sexuality and reproduction that characterized teenagers in past decades, what approaches might help to reduce teen pregnancy now? And what can increase the use of contraceptives among sexually active youngsters to reduce the risk of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases?

Effective programs against teen pregnancy share common elements. They offer facts about reproductive biology, including contraceptive methods, and they make clear that abstinence is the only sure way but that there are other methods of avoiding pregnancy. Effective programs also offer group discussion and a chance to practice such interpersonal skills as saying no in the face of sexual pressure and overcoming embarrassment in purchasing and using contraceptives if one does decide to have sex. Programs with all these elements generally are longer than the five-hour ENABL course.

Coming up with an effective replacement for ENABL will not be easy for Wilson, but the challenge of reducing teen pregnancy of course is far from his alone. That challenge falls on all Californians.