A Philosopher's Blog

Abstinence, Texas and Teen Pregnancy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2017
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While the United States has seen declining rates of teen pregnancy (along with a very slight reduction in self-reported teen sexual activity), Texas has the slowest rate of decline. In a typical year, 35,000 Texan teenagers and women under 20 get pregnant. Texas also leads the nation in repeat teen pregnancies. As would be suspected, researchers wondered why this was the case and investigated. The finding was hardly surprising. While many states have addressed the problem of unplanned teen pregnancies by education and social services support, Texas has elected to take a different approach. Most Texas schools offer either no sex education or abstinence only sex education. While many states offer contraception counselling to teen mothers, Texas generally does not—hence Texas leads the country in repeat teenage pregnancies. Texas also has rather restrictive policies regarding contraception for teenagers, although the evidence clearly shows that access to contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies (and hence also reduces the number of abortions). Despite the solid evidence linking Texas’ approach to its problem with teen pregnancy, the view of many social conservatives is that abstinence only education is the best approach. This is a rather problematic view.

Looked at in the context of the objective data on teen pregnancy, Texas’ abstinence only (or no sex education at all) approach is clearly not the best. If, of course, the best approach is the one that most effectively reduces unplanned teen pregnancies. To use the obvious analogy, it is as if Texas was trying to reduce automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities involving teenagers by offering them either no driver education or driver education that says not to drive or get in cars. Texas is also doing the equivalent of trying to ensure teens who do get in cars do so without access to seat belts, air bags and other safety equipment. The absurdity of this approach should be evident on the face of it. This, of course, assumes that the best approach is defined in terms of reducing unplanned teen pregnancies. However, there are other ways to evaluate approaches to addressing teen pregnancy.

One alternative approach is to select the method that is regarded as morally best, defined in terms of the moral principles used to make this assessment. For some conservatives, premarital sex is morally wrong. On this view, Texas is taking the right approach because unmarried teenagers should be practicing abstinence and enabling them to understand and access birth control would be to contribute to their immoral deeds. To use an analogy, consider murder. Since murder is wrong, schools should teach an abstinence only approach to murder and not enable people easy access to implements of murder (except guns; this is not only America but Texas).

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is to point out that the moral righteousness of those who deny teenagers proper sex education and access to contraceptives comes at the cost of considerable harm to the teenagers and society. Allowing this harm to occur to others simply so one can impose their own values seems to be morally unacceptable on utilitarian grounds.  There is also the moral concern about the rights of the teenagers to make their own informed choices about consensual sexual behavior. The imposition of the values of the social conservatives denies them this right and infringes on their freedom. Naturally, those who value abstinence and oppose contraception are free to act on this view themselves—they have every right to not engage in sex or to not use contraception when they do so. They do not, however, have the right to cause harm to others because of their views of sex.

Interestingly, the Texas approach can be seen as the best approach by considering an alternative set of goals. As noted above, if the goal is reducing unwanted teen pregnancies, then the Texas approach is a poor one. However, if there are different goals, then the approach could be regarded as a success. One possible goal is to ensure that the poor and uneducated remain that way. After all, unplanned pregnancies are most likely to occur among the poor and uneducated and they make it harder for people to rise out of poverty and also to achieve educational goals. Maintaining a poor and uneducated population confers some significant benefits to the upper classes and also meshes with some morally repugnant ideological views. Another possible goal is to “keep women in their place” by making it more likely that they will get pregnant as teenagers. This is a variant of the goal of maintaining an underclass; in this case the specific targets are girls and young women.

While a utilitarian case could, perhaps, be made for using these policies to help maintain the underclasses, the harms caused by them do seem to outweigh the advantages gained by the upper classes. As such, policies aimed at maintaining the underclasses would seem morally wrong.

In light of the above discussion, Texas’ approach to teenage pregnancy is either merely ineffective or immoral (or both). As such, the policies in Texas should be replaced by those that have proven effective elsewhere. Or not. Texas being the worst does have the benefit of allowing other states to look down at Texas and this does have a certain appeal.


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Candie’s Foundation

Posted in Ethics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on April 10, 2011

Celebrities can make money in a variety of ways. For example, Bristol Palin made $262,500 for her work for the Candies Foundation. Interestingly enough, while Candies is clearly incredibly generous with its paychecks, it only donated $35,000 in grants to teen pregnancy and health clinics.

Bristol’s video sends a somewhat odd, if honest, message. The gist of it seems to be that non-affluent teens (such as those who will not be paid $262,500 to appear in a video) should probably not have sex. If they do, they could get pregnant and end up with bad hair, an empty apartment, crappy clothing and a kid. In contrast, affluent teens (such as Bristol) will have styled hair, jewelry, nice clothes and a very nice place to live (plus the kid).

Not surprisingly, there has been considerable criticism of the Candie’s Foundation and Bristol regarding this matter.

Interestingly, Candies’ web site now describes its purpose as follows:

The Candie’s Foundation is a non-profit organization that works to shape the way youth in America think about teen pregnancy and parenthood. We are an operating foundation rather than a grant-making foundation. The foundation develops and runs communication campaigns to raise awareness about, and motivate teens to prevent, teen pregnancy.

While this might seem a bit defensive, it could be argued that creating PSAs using extremely well paid celebrities rather than helping teens via grants is morally justifiable. To be specific, it could be argued that the $262,500 paid to Bristol Palin for her work will have a more significant positive impact on teen pregnancy and parenthood than using the money for other purposes relating to these matters (such as grants to teen pregnancy and health clinics).

This, however, seems to be an implausible line of reasoning for three reasons. First, PSAs seem to have little impact on peoples’ behavior. Long before PSAs, Aristotle was well aware that discourse has very little impact on how people behave and argued in support of his claim in the Nicomachean Ethics. It is also intuitively implausible that teen hormones would be overcome by such PSAs.

Second, even if it is assumed that PSAs have a significant impact on behavior, these PSAs are being offset by commercials that certainly seem to be very pro sex. Interestingly enough, these commercials include ads put out by Candie’s (the fashion brand, not the foundation). For example, consider the message sent by the following Candie’s ad and compare it to the Candie’s Foundation ad campaign. Perhaps the plan is to create a net balance: PSAs about pregnancy offsetting very sexual ads.

Third, consider what that amount of money would do in terms of helping teen mothers by providing grants for clinics and sex education. Intuitively, this would seem to do more good and have far more of an impact than cutting checks to celebrities.

That said, the foundation is free to do with its money as it pleases (although this might displease some of its donors). However, it does seem that the money is being spent poorly in terms of the stated goals of the foundation.

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Sex Ed

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 9, 2010

While sex ed often leads to controversy, the latest incident is rather interesting. Wisconsin recently passed a new law that requires teachers to educate kids how to use contraceptives. In response, Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth sent  a memo to schools warning that teachers who follow this law could be arrested.

It is illegal for minors to have sex in Wisconsin, but he law requires teachers to show minors how to use contraception. So, according to Southworth,  the law requires teachers to encourage kids to  “engage in sexual behavior, whether as a victim or an offender.” This would, he reasons, make the teachers liable because they would be endorsing illegal behavior.  Southwort  goes on to use an analogy: “it is akin to teaching children about alcohol use, then instructing them on how to make mixed alcoholic drinks.” Not surprisingly, the main alternative being proposed to the new law is sex ed that focuses on abstinence.

If Southworth is right, then the teachers would be in a bit of a dilemma: if they follow the sex ed law, then they could be arrested for encouraging the delinquency of a minor. If they do not follow the sex ed law, then they would be breaking that law.  Of course, this assumes that Southworth is correct.

An important issue here is whether or not teaching minors to use contraception encourages them to engage in sexual activity.  Another important issue with whether or not teachers should be held accountable for the actions of the minors should they engage in sex.

In regards to the first issue, it could be argued that learning about sex and how to use contraceptives could encourage sexual behavior. To use an analogy to advertising, when people are exposed to information about a product and shown how to use it, they would be more inclined to buy and use that product. Sex ed of this sort could be seen as an infomercial that will lead minors towards sexual activity.

The analogy does, however, break down a bit. After all, an infomercial is explicitly trying to push a product whereas sex ed is presumably not aimed at getting minors to have sex.

However, it could be argued that merely learning about sex and how to use contraception will motivate minors to have sex. However, I suspect that biology provides considerable motivation-far more than what a sex ed class would provide. Also, minors are no doubt getting information about sex outside of school, such as via the internet. Finally, minors were having sex long before this law was passed. As such, it seems unlikely that this sort of sex ed would be a significant causal factor in leading minors to have sex.

Even if sex ed does encourage sexual behavior, this should be weighed against the benefits of such education. If minors will have sex anyway (which they clearly will), it seems preferable that they know how to use contraceptives and the consequences of not using them (as well as the consequences of sex). Such knowledge would most likely reduce the number of pregnancies and the spread of STDs. While it would be better for minors to wait until adulthood before having sex, if they do not it is better that they do not get (or get someone else) pregnant or catch an STD.

As far as abstinence based education goes, it is reasonable to educate students about the value of abstinence. However, to rely primarily on preaching abstinence as a problem solver would be a serious mistake. After all, it tends to be rather ineffective.

In regards to the second issue, it does make some sense that teachers would be accountable to a degree. To use another analogy, if a teacher shows students how to make pipe bombs and some students blow themselves up while trying to make them, then the student would have some responsibility for this.

This can, however, be countered by another analogy. Consider, if you will, a drivers’ ed class taught in school to minors. Obviously enough, this class teaches people how to drive and these people cannot legally drive on their own. Using Southworth’s logic, the drivers’ ed teachers would be responsible if one of the students jumped behind the wheel of the family car, took it for a spin, and got arrested. As such, driver’s ed should be changed from showing people how to drive to focusing on telling minors why they should practice automotive abstinence.