As Mississippi struggles with the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country, a majority of school districts are doubling down on a abstinence-only instruction, largely ignoring a 2011 state law that requires Mississippi schools to teach some form of sex education. But a growing number are abandoning the failed approach and opting for small steps toward a more honest conversation about sexual health.
The 2011 measure to provide gender-separated sexual education — which requires parents to give permission for their children to attend the classes — goes into effect for this upcoming school year, though the state Department of Education reports that 81 of Mississippi’s school districts, over half, have chosen to retain abstinence-only as their sole method of instruction. Seventy-one districts will adopt “abstinence-plus” classes that will continue to advocate for abstaining from sex, but include the mention of some forms of contraception.
Health advocates say that “abstinence-plus” could help slowly move the state in the right direction. “We are pleased and excited that so many districts decided to go with abstinence-plus,” Jamie H. Bardwell, the program director for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi said. “It definitely shows a need and a desire for more than just abstinence-only. It reflects the reality that 76 percent of Mississippi 12th-graders have already had sex.”
Faced with staggering teen pregnancy rates — teen pregnancy rate is highest in states with abstinence-only policies — some conservatives are starting to abandon abstinence-only policies in favor of contraceptive options. Eighty-eight percent of Evangelicals now support birth control and 82 percent of Catholics believe birth control is morally acceptable.
Transforming high rates of support for birth control into high rates of young people using birth control, however, involves teaching students what they need to know about it. A growing number of conservative school districts broadening their abstinence education programs to include “abstinence-plus” is the beginning of this process.