Palin case renews sex-ed debate

North Carolina's debate over abstinence-based sex education in public schools rages on.

The most recent spark came with news that the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, has a pregnant 17-year-old daughter. Sarah Palin has spoken out for the abstinence-based approach, which is backed by President Bush and taught in most N.C. counties.

Prompted by the Palin case, conversations about sex education highlight the issue's polarizing effect. Christian activists continue to support abstinence, noting that high profile cases such as the Palins' don't mean the approach should be changed.

“You don't make things better by lowering the standard,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the N.C. Christian Action League. He said sex outside marriage should be discouraged, just like any other risky behavior, including drug use, drunken driving, smoking and fighting.

Others, including a state public-health task force, have pushed to teach more detailed information about contraceptives in public schools.

In North Carolina, according to state surveys, between 60 percent and 70 percent of high school seniors have had intercourse, and some 15,000 teenage girls get pregnant annually. North Carolina's teen pregnancy rate began trending down in 1990 – before abstinence education was introduced in 1995 – but has leveled off in recent years, according to the state Division of Health Statistics.

Meanwhile, rates of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, have increased for people 15-19 during the last five years – indicating that young people who have sex are not using condoms.