Alaska Editorial: State should focus on helping teens avoid pregnancy

Posted: Monday, March 09, 2009

Gov. Sarah Palin is backing legislation that would require parental consent for a minor to have an abortion in Alaska.

Instead of moving to pass a law that the state's highest court has already said violates the state's Constitution, the governor and Legislature should focus their efforts on helping teens avoid pregnancy to begin with.

We're not talking about just promoting abstinence. Despite the billions of dollars poured into abstinence programs by the Bush administration, and other presidents before him, studies have shown time and again that these programs simply don't work.

Even the governor's own daughter, new mother Bristol Palin, has said it's not a realistic ideal.

That's not to say that abstinence teachings should be tossed out. But those teachings should be part of a wider effort. Schools should develop more intense education programs for youth and for their parents. Teens - especially young women - need a more thorough understanding of the potential for life-threatening diseases and of what parenthood is like. And too many parents wrongly believe their children don't have sex. Any gynecologist will tell you otherwise.

The government should also make birth control more readily available to anyone who wants it at a more affordable price - free if it can be managed.

But perhaps more importantly, the state must work to eliminate the underlying social problems that either lead to teen pregnancy or make teens afraid to ask their parents for help.

Alaska ranks among the highest in the nation in terms of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. We have abysmal rates for high school dropouts, and drug and alcohol abuse, and teen suicides.

Abortion is a contentious issue in this country, and understandably so. But realism dictates a new approach to this controversial issue, one of compromise and common sense, to greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for abortions altogether.

Finding a way to reach this goal would affect more than just eliminating a divisive social issue.

Consider this: Women experiencing unplanned pregnancies are less likely to get prenatal care, and their babies are at increased risk of both low birth weight and of being born prematurely, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a private, nonpartisan organization.

Children born from unplanned pregnancies face developmental risks, reporting poorer physical and mental health compared to children born as the result of an intended pregnancy, according to the national campaign organization.

As they grow up, children in one-parent families - the result of the majority of unplanned pregnancies - are more likely to be poor, drop out of high school, have lower grade-point averages, lower college aspirations and poorer school attendance records. As adults, they also have higher rates of divorce.

From an economical standpoint, according to an analysis released in 2006 from the National Campaign, teen childbearing in Alaska in 2004 cost taxpayers - federal, state and local - $13 million for public health care, such as Medicaid, alone. It cost an additional $8 million for child welfare or foster care services. Between 1991 and 2004, more than 16,000 children were born to teen mothers.

Teen pregnancies are not only a detriment to our children, but to our communities and to our economies.

Teens have sex, no matter how much we tell them it's best to wait. Teens can and do get pregnant, putting at risk their health and their futures.

It's up to the former teens of the world to stop wasting time trying to force kids into our unrealistic wishes, and work together to help teens avoid getting pregnant so they never have to face the life-altering decision on whether to have an abortion.

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