The revelation Monday that the 17-year-old unmarried daughter of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is pregnant has reignited debate over whether sex education programs focusing primarily on abstinence are effective in keeping teen pregnancy rates down.
The campaigns of both Republican John McCain, who on Friday named Palin as his running mate, and Democrat Barack Obama have emphasized that the matter should not be exploited for political ends. But even so, the announcement has the potential to make waves as both McCain and Palin have expressed a commitment to abstinence-only sex education programs.
Specifically, Palin has a record of opposing any school-based sexual education program other than those that adopt an abstinence-only approach. During her 2006 Alaska gubernatorial campaign, Palin responded to a question on sex education programs with the answer, "The explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support."
Palin also opposes the termination of a pregnancy in all cases except when the mother's life is in danger.
Sexual health experts overwhelmingly agree that such programs represent an ineffective strategy in reducing teen birthrates, favoring instead what is known as comprehensive sexuality education. Such programs incorporate advice on using contraceptives and safe sex practices to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
"Bristol Palin's pregnancy is another illustration of the need for comprehensive sexuality education," said Stephen Conley, executive director of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
"It's a reminder of how, even in strong families where youth are taught to refrain from sex until marriage, teens can make poor decisions," he said. "Teens need the reinforcement of school programs that give them the information and skills they need to take responsibility for their sexual health."
Eli Coleman, professor and director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School, agrees.
"This is just another case of the countless teens that become pregnant in this country," he said, adding that the United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world.
"Armed with one of the most effective educational systems in the world, the nation's policymakers have chosen to invest in a sexuality education approach that preaches abstinence until marriage," he said. "As a consequence, America's youth have been denied knowledge about how to protect themselves and their partners when they do become sexually active."
On the other side of the debate are groups such as Abstinence Clearinghouse, which maintain that abstinence-only programs work to reduce risky sex behaviors in teens.
Leslee J. Unruh, founder and president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, says that linking Bristol Palin's situation to the debate on the validity of these approaches is "a cheap shot."
"Abstinence works. It works every single time," she said. "I think it is very unfair to blame the abstinence community and abstinence legislation. ... Blaming sex education for the failures of people who make a mistake is not fair."