Teen pregnancy and sex education were thrust into the spotlight this week when Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin revealed that her 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant.
Palin’s running mate, John McCain, and the GOP platform say children should be taught that abstinence until marriage is the only safe way to avoid pregnancy and disease. Palin’s position is less clear.
In a widely quoted 2006 survey she answered during her gubernatorial campaign, Palin said she supported abstinence-until-marriage programs. But weeks later, she proclaimed herself “pro-contraception” and said condoms ought to be discussed in schools alongside abstinence.
“I’m pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues,” she said during a debate in Juneau.
Such statements could raise concerns among social conservatives who have been some of Palin’s most enthusiastic supporters since she was tapped for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket last week.
Leslee Unruh, president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse and campaign manager of the Vote Yes for Life effort, said children must be given a “clear and concise” message on the benefits of abstinence.
Asked about Palin’s statement, Unruh said, “I don’t think it’s clear. It seems disjointed to me.”
Two days later, Unruh dismissed the comments as “old.”
“I support her in every way,” she said.
Other conservatives who have backed Palin, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, declined to weigh in.
Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella said the governor stands by her 2006 statement, supporting sex education that covers both abstinence and contraception.
McCain’s campaign did not respond to questions about whether Palin’s position is inconsistent with his. But earlier, a campaign spokesperson said McCain believes abstinence is “the only safe and responsible alternative.”
“To do otherwise is to send a mixed signal to children that, on the one hand they should not be sexually active, but on the other, here is the way to go about it,” according to a statement provided by the campaign. “As any parent knows, ambiguity and equivocation leads to problems when it comes to teaching children right from wrong.”
Even before Palin released a statement about her daughter Bristol, teen pregnancy had been in the spotlight frequently this year. The teen birth rate, which had been declining for 15 years, showed an increase in new data released in July. One month earlier, 17-year-old actress Jamie Lynn Spears gave birth to a daughter, distressing parents who worried about the message it would send to young fans. And early in the year, the film “Juno” won an Oscar, prompting critics to accuse Hollywood of glamorizing teen pregnancy.
Sex education varies widely across the nation’s school districts.
In California, the state Education Code does not allow abstinence-only programs in public schools, so if a school offers sex education, it must include discussion of contraception as well as abstinence. About 96% of the state’s schools offer sex education. All schools are required to educate older children about HIV/AIDS, and those discussions must cite both abstinence and condoms as methods of preventing infection.
The federal government has spent more than $1 billion on the abstinence-only message since 1996 under a program created by Congress as part of welfare reform. California is the only state to have declined to take part in the program since its inception. In recent years, states that had taken part in the program have decided to forgo the funding and the restrictions that come with it.
Palin’s statements date to her 2006 gubernatorial run. In July of that year, she completed a candidate questionnaire that asked, would she support funding for abstinence-until-marriage programs instead of “explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?”
Palin wrote, “Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.”
But in August of that year, Palin was asked during a KTOO radio debate if “explicit” programs include those that discuss condoms. Palin said no and called discussions of condoms “relatively benign.”
“Explicit means explicit,” she said. “No, I’m pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues. So I am not anti-contraception. But, yeah, abstinence is another alternative that should be discussed with kids. I don’t have a problem with that. That doesn’t scare me, so it’s something I would support also.”