For weeks, Republican presidential candidates have filled the headlines with their invidious condemnations of Planned Parenthood and abortion in the United States. Carly Fiorina’s campaign recently spliced together bits of video – including a picture of a fetus born prematurely, not aborted – to back her claim that Planned Parenthood is destroying “the moral character of our nation.” This week, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform regarding the services the organization provides.
It is no secret that Republicans want to strip Planned Parenthood of federal dollars and watch as clinics close their doors due to overbearing regulations. Advocates for women’s reproductive health remind opponents that only three percent of Planned Parenthood services are abortion related – which are not paid for by taxpayer dollars – and that the few women who have late-term abortions often do so for traumatic medical reasons. Advocates highlight the critical services that Planned Parenthood offers to women, many of whom cannot afford care elsewhere: everything from breast cancer screenings to prenatal care to STD testing. But one thing that both critics and advocates have left out of the spotlight is the critical work Planned Parenthood does regarding sexual education.
Only 22 states and the District of Columbia require that public schools teach sexual education. Only 33 have any requirement that students learn about HIV/AIDS. Even more surprisingly, only 19 states require that sexual education must be “medically, factually, or technically accurate.” For localities that do teach sexual education, most of the money they receive is for only for abstinence-based education programs – programs that decry sex before marriage rather than teach students about contraception and STD prevention. The programs came about largely as a result of religious conservative lobbying.
The goal of abstinence-based education is to prevent teens from having sex, with the hope that then conversations about pregnancy, HIV and STDs, and contraception won’t be necessary. The research, however, does not support this line of thinking. Statistics show that abstinence-until-marriage programs are completely ineffective, as 95 percent of Americans engage in premarital sex. By contrast, comprehensive sexual education programs are shown to actually delay the age of first sexual activity and increase condom and contraceptive usage. Furthermore, studies have found that “adolescents who received comprehensive sexual education had a lower risk of pregnancy” than those who had abstinence-only or no sexual education. One study concluded that abstinence-only education “may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.”
The evidence couldn’t be clearer. Mississippi requires abstinence-based sexual education and bans condom demonstrations, yet 76 percent of Mississippi high school students report having sex before they graduate. Mississippi also has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, and a third of all babies in Mississippi are born to teenage mothers.
That is where Planned Parenthood comes in. One of the most underrated and undervalued resources Planned Parenthood provides is sexual education – based on a comprehensive approach – to 1.5 million people each year. Each year, they conduct 1.1 million pregnancy tests, 4.5 million STD tests, and provide contraception to help prevent over 500,000 unintended pregnancies. In conservative communities where teens’ only information about sex is their school telling them not to do it, Planned Parenthood helps ensure they don’t become teenage parents or contract STDs, in addition to providing them information about healthy relationships and sexual assault.
Closing Planned Parenthood clinics denies vulnerable populations – often young, poor women – vital resources. Scott County, Indiana, a state that doesn’t mandate sexual education, is the source of the largest HIV outbreak in Indiana history. The only provider of HIV testing in the small, rural county – Planned Parenthood – closed in 2013 due to new state restrictions targeting abortion clinics, even though the Scott County clinic never provided abortions. It is no coincidence that two years later, in the absence of HIV testing and care, HIV incidence has skyrocketed.
Planned Parenthood makes up the gap in sexual education that so many states endorse and perpetuate through no education or abstinence-based education by providing factual information to those who seek services. Planned Parenthood isn’t the baby-killing monster conservative press would have readers believe. Planned Parenthood is the reason that girls like Simone, who gave birth at 15 years old, remain in school through Adolescent Parenting Programs. Planned Parenthood is the reason men like Marquis are alive through HIV testing for teens. Planned Parenthood is the reason that young immigrants like Shireen learn about their sexual health and how to protect themselves.
Eliminating Planned Parenthood for the three percent of abortion services, and losing the other vital 97 percent they provide would devastate millions of people across the country, especially those most vulnerable. A government’s commitment to making sure vulnerable people have access to quality healthcare should be the real test for the “moral character of our nation.”