Pregnant and 17: We owe kids straight talk

Bristol Palin, 17, is expecting a baby. She is luckier than many teen mothers. She has the support of her parents, including her mom, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

You'd think the awkward public spotlight focused on that unplanned teen pregnancy would produce straight talk about a problem that is so personally painful, so costly and so common. You'd think it would spark a hearty debate about how to do a better job of prevention.

But it hasn't, and therein lies the problem.

Kids need straight talk about how their bodies work. They need straight talk about sex and sexuality. Yet so many adults don't seem capable of such talk. We owe our children more than averted eyes and abstinence-based health education that gives them only half the story. The plight of Bristol Palin is an opportunity to talk honestly about the issue, and examine public policies to see if they are adequate.

Let's start with this premise: The average teenager has no business becoming a parent. Yet too many teens are having babies in spite of a national focus on teaching them to abstain from sex.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found the nation's teen birth rate rising for the first time in 15 years. It noted the change after a review of births in 2006. That follows a decrease in 2003 that marked the lowest teen birthrates on record.

North Carolina has the 9th highest teenage pregnancy rate. In 2006, that rate was 63.1 pregnancies per 1,000 girls ages 15-19. That works out to one teen pregnancy every 58 minutes, calculates the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition of N.C.

A key to changing that statistic is encouraging kids to make better choices. Since 1995, state law required sex education for middle and high school students to promote abstinence until marriage and to teach kids to say no to sex. (Ironically, that's the same flawed policy Sarah Palin backed in Alaska.)

The problem is pushing abstinence is not enough. N.C. schools can only attempt to teach more comprehensive sex education in grades 10-12, and then only after holding a public hearing – easier said than done. That means most counties do not expose kids to basic, medically accurate information about condoms or other ways to prevent unplanned pregnancies.

In a perfect world, that kind of education ought to be provided by parents. But when it isn't, we all pay. Teen pregnancy costs state taxpayers in North Carolina $312 million a year, according to a report in 2006 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. That represents the economic, medical and social costs. It does not reflect the personal toll.

The truth is, most pregnant teenagers don't have the parental support Bristol Palin has. Many drop out of school, wind up under-employed and struggle to raise a child alone in a harsh world.

It's time for a more honest political debate about what kind of prevention policies work.