The Ethics of STDs
A recent study revealed a rather troubling fact: 25% of teenage girls (14-19) have a sexually transmitted disease. Among African Americans the amount is 50%. Among whites the amount is 20%.
As with any study, there is a margin of error (how much the sample is likely to differ from the entire population) and there is also the possibility that sample is somehow significantly different from the general population. Even with those factors taken into account, the results still indicate a serious problem.
One aspect of the problem is medical. While most STDs are not fatal (though some can be such as HIV infections and syphilis), they are all harmful to a person’s health. Many of them can have serious consequences such as an increased risk for cancer or sterility. Given that these diseases are widespread among teenage women (and potentially among young men-these girls obviously did not get the STDs from some form of immaculate infection), this is a serious general health issue for America.
While abstinence is obviously the surest way to avoid STDs, this is hardly a realistic option for most. Ethical sense and good judgment are also an excellent defense against STDs as well. While it can be very tempting to argue for personal responsibility, good judgment and ethics, the reality is that most teenagers (and most adults) will not be affected by calls for rational and ethical behavior. Aristotle makes an excellent case for this in his Nichomachean ethics and the empirical data supports this.
We should not abandon attempts to instill proper ethical values and to teach teenagers to be rational decision makers. But, to rely solely on calls for abstinence or to tell kids to just “say no” will not protect the teens. As such, a better option is needed that takes into account the fact that many teens will have sex even if they are told not to do so.
From a physical standpoint, the best defense against STDs is a condom. As such, kids who are in the sexually active age range should be educated about the reality of STDs and how to protect themselves. Ideally, the kids would not be having sex until they were mature enough to understand the consequences and risks of the activity as well as the ethics of the matter. Realistically, kids are obviously having sex at age 14 or younger. That in itself is a problem-kids that young are almost certainly incapable of having good judgment in this matter and are obviously not ready to deal with the serious consequences of their actions. Parents and guardians should, therefore, also be taking steps to protect their children from becoming sexually active at such a young age. Failing that, they would need to take steps to increase the likelihood that their children will be protected from pregnancy (being pregnant or impregnating another) and STDs.
Thus, from a health standpoint it seems clear that teens need to be educated about and protected from these diseases.
The moral standpoint is, as always, a bit fuzzier. While some people would accept that the health argument also shows that sex education and allowing teens to have access to condoms is morally acceptable, other people would disagree.
From the standpoint of consequences, the health argument seems fairly decisive. If the current approach to teen sex is followed, the problem will most likely simply continue. This is because if nothing is changed, then nothing will (obviously enough) change. Since having teenagers infected with STDs is a clear harm, then it follows that we should (morally) take the needed steps to prevent this harm. Since calls for abstinence seem to be largely ineffective, then other steps would need to be taken to address this matter. As argued above, education and providing means of protection seem to be the most effective option. Naturally, attempts to educate children in ethics and decision making should continue and should even be enhanced.
Of course, not everyone is swayed by consequences. Some people take the view that it is simply wrong for teenagers to have sex and hence they should not be educated about sex and should most certainly not be provided with condoms. Some people do add that sex education and the providing of condoms merely encourages teens to have sex.
While sex education and providing condoms might increase the chances of teens having sex, the effect is probably relatively minor. Other factors, such as biology and general cultural influences, probably have much strong roles.
The claim that it is wrong for teenagers to have sex has a certain plausibility. Teenagers tend to have poor judgment (this seems to be grounded in biology-the teenage brain is different than the adult brain in terms of the development of the centers relating to what we call judgment) and they are generally ill prepared to deal with the possible consequences of sex (most notably pregnancy). Intuitively, if a person who has poor judgment and lacks the capability to properly handle the consequences engages in a risky act, s/he is doing something that is at best morally questionable. The person will probably make a bad decision and end up hurting himself/herself or others. In this case, the person can get an STD, get pregnant, give someone else and STD or get someone else pregnant.
In reply, the fact that sex has such serious consequences merely serves to support the claim that action should be taken to protect teens from these harms. If we cannot rely on judgment or ethics, then the most effective option would be education and condoms. To use an analogy, if we cannot prevent teens from driving, then we should do what we can to make sure they use seat belts.
Obviously, some people think that teen sex (and sex in generally) is wrong on religious grounds. To give a facetious reply, if God didn’t want teens to have sex, He could have simply made the relevant parts so they did not function until a person became an adult (or got married) or He could have had use reproduce by cellular division.
To give a non-facetious reply, that is a reasonable concern. There are excellent arguments for religious based ethics and they are worth considering. As noted above, I believe that children should be trained in ethics and good reasoning. I also think that teens should not be having sex-for the reasons given above (poor judgment plus consequences). As such, I have sympathy for the view that teen sex is wrong. But, the view that sex is wrong and hence we should simply try to prevent kids from having sex will not solve the problem we now face. Should people who hold this view stick to their moral principle and simply accept the consequences or should they reluctantly allow their principles to be bent or broken in order to help protect th children? This is tough call-a person who lightly sets aside his or her moral principles even in the face of serious consequences cannot be well regarded as a good person. That said, a person who sticks to his principles and thus would allow harm to come to others might not be doing the right thing.
In any case, this is a serious problem and action must be taken to rectify the situation.