Are culture wars killing reproductive health?

By Michelle Chen Jul 24, 2009

New federal data about adolescent sexual behavior stratify sharply, and not surprisingly, along racial lines. Perhaps more disturbing is that after years of progress, the reproductive health and justice movements appear to be losing ground. The Centers for Disease Control reports:

pregnancy rates for female Hispanic and non-Hispanic black adolescents aged 15–19 years are much higher (132.8 and 128.0 per 1,000 population) than their non-Hispanic white peers (45.2 per 1,000 population). … black female adolescents aged 15–19 years were more likely to be living with AIDS (49.6 per 100,000 population) than Hispanic (12.2 per 100,000 population), American Indian/Alaska Native (2.6 per 100,000 population), non-Hispanic white (2.5 per 100,000 population) and Asian/Pacific Islander (1.3 per 100,000 population) adolescents. In 2006, among young persons aged 10–24 years, rates for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were highest among non-Hispanic blacks for all age groups. Although the majority of negative outcomes have been declining for the past decade, the most recent data suggest that progress might be slowing, and certain negative sexual health outcomes are increasing.

An analysis by the Guttmacher Institute indicates that although condom use increased significantly between 1991 and 2003, since then, sexual activity has leveled off while contraceptive use has actually declined slightly. (Compared to whites, adolescent Black and Latina women report higher rates of using no contraception the last time they had sex.) According to the study, this stagnation “could be the result of faltering HIV prevention efforts among youth, or of more than a decade of abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education that does not mention contraception unless it is to disparage its use and effectiveness.” In response to the CDC report, Joseph DiNorcia, Jr., head of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) said, “The progress that we have fought so hard for over the past decades is in real danger of slipping through our fingers”:

When faced with the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic more than 20 years ago, we were able to launch unprecedented reforms and campaigns to make real progress against the spread of the virus. This is the kind of unity and dedication that we need again today. After too many years of being ignored by the previous administration, the sexual health and well-being of our young people must once again become an important focus issue if we are to ensure them healthy futures.

Some lawmakers are trying to make up for lost progress. This week, Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) reintroduced an initiative to expand comprehensive sexuality education and family planning for low-income women, with the aim of reducing unwanted pregnancies. Yet Obama also recently signaled that he has no intention of changing federal restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortions. On the state level, meanwhile, abortion funding bans mean that a large portion of poor women, who would otherwise have a Medicaid-funded abortion, have no choice but to carry their pregnancies to term. Now, lawmakers are wrangling over funding for reproductive health services in the emerging healthcare reform legislation, using abortion to poison a vital discussion on the health of women and families. As the culture wars rage on in Congress, troubling trends in adolescent sexual health foreshadow continued regression. Politicians’ moral grandstanding on abortion is mostly political bluster, but it could do a lot of real damage to women struggling for reproductive justice in underserved communities. Image: Baba Zuwa via flickr