Better High School Sex-Ed Classes Can Curb Rise in Teen Pregnancy and STDs

ByNora Blalock

To curb sexual risks for youth, Congress should reform Title V, Section 510 to encourage states to teach comprehensive sexual education in schools across the United States.

Youth in the United States face significant sexual risks. The United States has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates of any developed country in the world, with approximately 750,000 teen pregnancies each year. Furthermore, half of all new human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections and two-thirds of all sexually transmitted infections in the United States each year occur among people under the age of 25. Given these alarming statistics, it is imperative to implement comprehensive sexual education (CSE) programs that emphasize abstinence but also stress the importance of contraceptives and the risks of sexually transmitted diseases. 

Currently, the decision of how to teach sexual education is left to the states and individual school districts. However, Title V, a controversial abstinence-only education initiative established in 1996, allows Congress to federally fund abstinence-only programs in schools across the nation. For states to receive any of this funding from the government, the grantees must design curricula with the exclusive purpose of teaching the benefits of abstinence. President Obama attempted to suspend funding for this initiative in 2009, but it was reinstated through Title II Section 2954, a provision in the Affordable Health Care for America Act of 2010. 


Abstinence-only strategies have been shown to deter contraceptive use among sexually active teens, thereby increasing their risk of unwanted pregnancies and STDs. Moreover, there are no findings proving that abstinence-only education successfully delays the sexual activity of teens. As the only state to reject Congressional funds for abstinence-only programming, California’s teenage pregnancy rates declined by 52 percent between 1991 and 2009, much more than the national decline of 37 percent. To protect the health of young people in our country, Congress must stop funding abstinence-only programs and instead use the money as an incentive for states to implement CSE programs in public schools, including age-appropriate curricula for elementary schools. In CSE programs, students must be given complete information about sexual behaviors.

Next Steps 

Congress must replace abstinence-only education funds with grants for states that implement comprehensive sex education programs. These programs need to have clear health goals, such as the prevention of STDs, HIV, and pregnancy, and they should focus on specific behaviors that will lead to achieving these health goals, such as using contraceptives or abstaining from sex.