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Schools Should Give Kids Free Contraceptives

Making free birth control available to school kids would be a boon to the U.S.—decreasing the rates of teen pregnancy, welfare dependence, and school drop-out. Pro or con?

Pro: We Must Face the Inevitable

In the pre-industrialized world, teenagers routinely became parents. When life expectancy was short and infant mortality was high, this was the cultural norm. But today, we live much longer and organize our lives around our careers and finances. Having a child as a teen means the mother is more likely to drop out of school, delay her educational advancement, earn less over her working life, contribute less tax money to the state, and end up living in borderline poverty and receiving welfare assistance from the government.

For the decades, our primary means of preventing teenage pregnancies was to demand that teenagers not have sex, a tactic akin to ordering a hungry tiger not to maul you. Outside of our moralistic haze, we know full well that teenage years are a transition to sexual maturity, and no matter what we say, they will have sex. Abstinence-only education, often based on bad science and loaded with religious overtones, is an abject failure. A recent study by Columbia University found that these programs actually contribute to a decline in contraceptive use among teens because they disparage contraception. This increases risks of teen pregnancy and STDs, the exact opposite of these programs’ stated goal.

Instead, schools should be willing to provide contraception to students who make the choice to be sexually active despite being educated about all the potential risks of their behavior. Rather than act self-righteous and drag teenagers into culture wars in which angry polemics only ignore the problem or make it worse and more expensive to deal with, we should give them the means to protect themselves in the real world. It will drive down dropout rates, build new careers, and help today’s teens have children when they’re financially and emotionally ready.

Con: Abstinence Education Is the Key

After 30 years of implementation and evaluation, there is no compelling evidence of in-classroom contraceptive distribution and instruction programs having had a sustained and meaningful effect on program outcome “protective” behaviors—being consistent and correct condom usage. As a public health intervention, contraceptive programs have simply failed American youth: An STD epidemic currently exists amongst young people. One in four teenage girls nationwide has an STD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the U.S. continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world; and the toll from the negative psychological sequelae associated with adolescent sex is having an impact on adolescent mental health and the pursuit of life-goals.

Decreasing teen sexual activity is key to decreasing poverty, since single parenting is strongly linked to poverty. Research shows that the younger a teen starts having sex, the greater risk of pregnancy. A 2002 study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that almost half of all girls who have sex before age 15 get pregnant. Additionally, the distribution of contraceptives does nothing to promote healthy relationships, healthy family formation, and marriage, where a greater probability for economic stability exists.

As well as increased risk of non-marital pregnancy, substance abuse and poor academic achievement are associated with teen sexual activity and can significantly affect school drop-out rates. According to data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, those who were sexually active were three times more likely to be depressed than those who were abstinent. By contrast, teens who abstain from sex enhance their abilities to achieve short-term and long-term life goals.

Young people deserve a whole-person approach, including physical, emotional, and psychological dimensions to protect both their current and future health. The primary prevention strategy, or risk-avoidance abstinence approach, provides for a health paradigm in which youth are better able to develop during adolescent years and from which society will benefit.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek,, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments


I believe that this subject should be taught at home from the child's parents, single parent or not. (This in turn will let the child mold their own opinion on the matter.)

So the real question is why put so much pressure on the school system when there are other things to worry about, like education, where once again we rank pretty low compared to most industrialized nations.


As a reproductive health educator, I can hardly get into some schools just to talk about sex ed, let alone hand out condoms! I believe I am but one part. I can talk to your kids and encourage them to talk to you the parent, but lately I feel like the parents jump to to conclusions that the kid is having sex just because they bring it up to you. Open your ears close your mouth, and hear what your kids have to say.


Abstinence is most definitely the best choice as a teen in order to avoid STDs and possibly unintended pregnancy.

It is not the only choice for teens, though, and we need to recognize that. Teens have had sex for as long as we have been here. The difference lies in that the idea of a "teen" is new. Prior to the 20th century, we were children and then we were adults. There was no teen. The difference today then lies in our social structure. It is not emotionally appropriate or fiscally responsible for teens to acquire STDs or have to deal with unintended pregnancy.

There needs to be a comprehensive education that teaches abstinence is ideal and we know it does not happen 100% of the time, so here is how you manage your health and safety when you are not abstinent.


Duy --

I agree, ideally sex education is taught by the parents. This assumes parents are an integral part of their child's life and that they are capable of teaching this topic to their children. Sadly, both of those assumptions miss the mark of reality the majority of the time.

Tara --

Re: Last sentence. Amen!


Both writers have some good points. Abstinence education will not be effective. But treating students as whole persons also makes sense. Rather than simply giving away contraceptives in school, why not try to locate health clinics next to high schools? This would allow kids to generally address their health issues, including contraception, more easily. If the clinics also offered education (such as assertiveness training and self-esteem groups for girls) after school, that would also be helpful.


I believe education is the best thing in life. Without an education, you can't get a good job with good pay, and without good pay you can't take care of yourself or your family, but in today's life teenagers are having sex and probably getting pregnant, but the best thing to do is to get help for your baby and continure school.


Why is Businessweek wasting time and resources on an issue like this? Is this a business publication or MSNBC?


Abstinence education? I'm 16. I don't know how abstinence education is going to prevent someone from having sex. Sure, you have the knowledge, but you still have to choose to practice it or not. Look at the Catholics; they have the bible yet their hipocrisy is seen every Saturday when they go to bars and then on Sunday go pray on a pew.

Free contraceptives are the answer, and not only condoms but birth control pills as well, seeing as they are more effective.

Abstinence isn't the answer, contraceptives are. Leave the abstinence for the high horse Republican conservatives.


Schools should leave out moral teaching in classrooms. Condoms are up to the parents to teach. Some might have purchased life insurance on their children and are hoping for AIDS.

That rare one


Abstinence is not just for highly religious people. I'm a 32 year old atheist that is still waiting for marriage to have sex. I'm waiting so that special woman can know I waited all this time for her...that she is my special one.

Teenagers (and people in general these days) need to get mentally tougher to overcome the pressure to have sex.

People need to know you are not abnormal if you wait for marriage.

Connie Hanna

I never had sex until I was 19 or 20. Not because I was weird or something wrong with me--I just felt that sex was for people in love and not just a fun event. What is wrong with morals--are we going back to the dark ages? Teenagers should understand that getting pregnant bears responsibilities that teenagers [aren't] capable of coping with and should not depend on the state to take care of them and their child. I think it's up to parents to teach both sexes what the consequences are. Maybe if they realize they are on their own if pregnant, they would be less likely to indulge. Unfortunately, it's only the female that gets stuck. It's too bad that males don't get pregnant so they would learn to keep their penis in their pants.

aloke Chakravartty

It may be true in the U.S., where they think that teens will have sex. It is an open society, and their just making these things available is not enough--there has to be education. Children, more so the girls, should know everything about sex life from the early stage of their teens. Mothers have a great responsibility in teaching the child the need for knowledge. It is the girl that suffers the most. I agree that in the west it should be completely free and open and everything should be available easily anywhere, more so in schools.
TIG business schools


When my children were 14 and 15 years old, I sat them down and told them 2 things. If you have a child I will not take care of it and if you get arrested and it's your fault I will not bail you out. Needless to say neither one of them did either thing. Parents have to stop enabling their children and talk straight to them about the consequences. Today parents seem so immature that no wonder their children act so immaturely. This society that promotes so much welfare also enables these woman to have babies by different men and we need to correct that situation. When young people see that they can welfare simply by having a baby, what kind of message does that send? Of course since prayer was taken out of school, there is no shame and all anyone seems to care about these days is how someone "feels." Life is not all about feelings my friends, but also about morals, values, integrity and honesty; something we rarely see anymore because it has no monetary value.


Okay, everyone can agree that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and STDs. However, not everyone is going to abstain. People are going to have sex. Safe sex should be what is taught, because for teens who know they aren't going to wait, a talk about abstinence doesn't really give them much helpful information.


In my opinion, culture changes. Therefore I believe that adults in this generation don't know all that much about the youth of today. I'm just turned 18, and I was preached abstinence from at least the age of 11. I can honestly say that the majority of the class, including me, rebelled against it. I think the real question is, would you prefer your children to approach sex in a sensible way (use contraception) or would your prefer they rebel (which they most likely will) and end up with an STD or getting pregnant?

As silly as it may seem, I believe underage sex is related to the want for more attention. I know that was the case with me anyway. Maybe parents should start thinking about spending a little more time with their kids having fun, rather than preaching 24/7.


Teenagers should know right from wrong. When planning to have sex they know the consequences. Parents need to start telling them about the consequences and explain in detail about these consequences. But more important, parents need to adjust to the new world.


I do agree parents should teach accurate sex education at home. Telling their own child about condoms and contraceptives but some parents don't care if their children know. I don't think it would be wrong for the schools to help inform these kids of contraceptives and the safest sex is no sex.If the schools talk about it and the parents do too then maybe we can make some of those teenagers who "know everything" listen. I'm 22 and divorced. I had my first baby when I was 15. She means the world to me and I wouldn't change anything about my life with her but when she is old enough I would like to make sure she has accurate sex education so she can be a teenager and not have to grow up so quick.


I am in the middle of all of this. I do believe that parents should have the right to talk to their child about sex, but then again, sometimes there are those children who don't have a stable home and sometimes their parents just don't care what they do. I believe that when a school steps in like this, it shows that they care and that they are just their to help. I remember in High School I took Sex Education in 10th grade, but you had to get permission from your parents stating that it was okay for you to be in that class, and to learn on that touchy subject. I do also believe that we should have those contraceptives in school for emergency cases, I mean if we were to hand these out at school, the students I believe are more likely to use them than if you were to tell them to promise not to have sex until they are married. I mean that is just not realistic. Students are going to do what they want to do regardless of what anybody has to say; it is just a fact. So yes, we should find some alternative to help lower the teen pregnancy rate, and I believe contraceptives will work.

decent one

ithink abstinence is the best medicine. why should one engage in sexsual activity while she or he knows she is playing with is for two married people who are commited to each other.let the churches and the parents play thier role by teaching the teens the impotance of waiting till a proud 21 yaers old girl who is still a virgin and um saving this to my lovely husband who i believe is also out there waiting for me,though to my peers um stupid bt i wont let them lead me to the death virginity is worth my dinity.


Decent One:

We are not stupid just because we could not wait, I am a Christian woman myself, but I can tell you that I am not a virgin, and yes temptation did take over, but we are not stupid. But, honey, all power to you if you are going to wait for your lovely husband. I am just thankful enough I didn't have to go through having sex with several men to find out the only one I did end up giving it to is the person I will soon be married to. But again, please watch what you say.



I agree.


As a teenager myself, the opportunity to get free birth control from places like planned parenthood is huge. I know tons of girls that have had sex, knowing they'll be just fine because they're able to get on the pill before they have sex with their boyfriend. I also know tons of people that are a part of Younglife (a christian group), and intense Catholics that still have sex, although some kids do follow those religious morals and don't have sex before marriage. My best friend was told by her grandparents (who raised her) that if she didn't have sex or party until she was 18, they'd pay for her college and take her on a tour of Europe, and even with the thought of letting down the people that raised her and provided for her haunting her in the back of her head, she still had sex. The point is: free contraceptives or not, teenagers are still going to have sex. Whether they're preached abstinence all their lives, or taught about the pros and cons to birth control and condoms as early as 5th grade (like I was), sex and the want to have sex runs deeper than what adults tell us. I will admit, there are tons of responsible teenagers in this World that will wait until marriage or at least until they're out of HS, but the number of girls and guys that have sex in HS is a huge number, and would probably surprise a lot of adults. I'm currently writing a research paper about WHY the teen pregnancy epidemic in our country is so high and my two reasons are 1) the media and glamorizing pregnancy and 2) the way our society throws around contraceptives, giving kids the direct route to having sex at whatever age they want. We feel like we're old enough at a certain age to take that risk and undergo all the consequences that go along with that decision, and I don't think that will change anytime soon.


Good point. I hadn't thought about it quite that way.

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