Just days after Bristol Palin officially became the poster child for her mother's failed abstinence-only sex education policy, a new report from the CDC revealed that in 2006 Alaska experienced the nation's fastest growing teen birth rate. While Mississippi suddenly surpassed Texas to earn the dubious leadership distinction, it comes as no surprise that the 10 worst performing states all voted for George W. Bush in 2004.
Mississippi's rate was more than 60 percent higher than the national average in 2006, according to new state statistics released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The teen birth rate for that year in Texas and New Mexico was more than 50 percent higher...
...The lowest teen birth rates continue to be in New England, where three states have rates at roughly half the national average, which is 42 births per 1,000 teen women.
While Mississippi's increase may or may not be a "statistical blip," it also suggests a cataclysmic failure of now-orthodox Republican social policies. As ThinkProgress detailed, Mississippi is a leading "hotbed of abstinence education." More disturbing, the state's draconian restrictions on abortion - including a mandatory requirement that patients must view an ultrasound image prior to receiving the procedure - have left th entire state of Mississippi with only one abortion clinic.
To be sure, partisan debate over the causes of the worrisome jump in teen births is contentious. Republicans no doubt will point to higher rates among Democratic-leaning African-Americans and Hispanics to excuse the dismal performance in their home states. Democrats will rightly point to the proven record of failure for abstinence-only education programs advocated by President Bush and GOP leaders nationwide.
And as the data consistently show, abstinence-only sex education programs simply don't work. A recent report by researchers at Johns Hopkins showed that teenagers taking "virginity pledges" engage in the same gamut of sexual practices at virtually identical levels as non-pledgers, only with a much lower use of condoms and other forms of contraception. In April 2007, a study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. of Princeton, N.J. for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families found that children who took part in abstinence-only programs became sexually active at about the same age and had as many sexual partners as those who participated in broader sex education classes. Despite spending 176 million dollars annually and 1.5 billion in the past decade on abstinence programs nationwide, the United States has recently experienced increasing rates of sexual transmitted diseases and pregnancy among teens. (The 3% jump in teen pregnancy rates is the first increase in 15 years.) It's no wonder that by June 2008, 22 states opted out of President Bush's abstinence education program and turned down millions of dollars of federal funding that came with it.
Other recent studies are consistent with the CDC's findings this week. In 2006, the Guttmacher Institute compiled data showing rates of teen pregnancy and lives births to teen mothers for each state. As it turns out, 9 of the 10 states with the highest teen pregnancy rates voted for Bush in 2004; all 10 with the highest rates of live births among women ages 15 to 19 are reliably Republican. (The Distrct of Columbia is a notable outlier.) Virtually all of them are among the 28 states which continue to receive federal funds for abstinence education. Conversely, 9 of the 10 states with the lowest rates of teen births voted Democratic in 2004; North Dakota was the only red state to crack the top 10. (Sarah Palin's home state of Alaska was in the middle of the pack at number 23.)
And as with so many measures of social pathology, teenage birth rates are highest in exactly those states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004. Analyses over the past two years revealed that Red State America lags in health care, working conditions, and effectiveness of education systems. Divorce and murder rates, too, are generally highest in the states Republicans call home.
Back in Alaska, Stephanie Birch, who directs maternal and child health programs for the state's Department of Health and Social Services, had this reaction to the grim CDC data:
Glowing media portrayals of celebrity pregnancies don't help, either, she said. "They make it out to be very glamorous," said Birch, who cited a calculation by Alaska officials that teen births were up 6 percent in that state in 2006.
If so, Birch must not have enjoyed the Republican National Convention, in which Sarah Palin's pregnant daughter Bristol and father-to-be Levi Johnston were used as props on stage. But in perhaps her only public service on the issue, Governor Palin last week issued a statement after her grandson's birth that "we all at first looked at the situation with some fear and a bit of despair." As for Bristol Palin, she urged others to practice what her own family only preached, "Teenagers need to prevent pregnancy to begin with - this isn't ideal."
Mercifully, when it comes to teenage birth dates, the news isn't all bad for the family values merchants and culture warriors of the Republican Party. With Nevada and New Mexico voting for Barack Obama in 2008, some of those poor performing red states are turning blue.