With the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, a majority of Mississippi's school districts have chosen to teach an abstinence-only sex education curriculum this year.
A 2011 state law mandates some sort of sex education in all school systems beginning this academic year, but the local districts decide whether to adopt an abstinence-only or an abstinence-plus policy for sex education. Abstinence-plus teaches safe-sex practices, contraception and causes and effects of sexually transmitted diseases in addition to abstinence.
"We are pleased and excited that so many districts decided to go with abstinence-plus," Jamie H. Bardwell, program director for the Women's Fund, told the Associated Press. "It definitely shows a need and a desire for more than just abstinence-only. It reflects the reality that 76 percent of Mississippi 12th-graders have already had sex."
More than 80 of the state's 151 districts opted for abstinence-only curriculums, according to The Clarion Ledger, while three chose to adopt split policies, teaching abstinence-only to younger students and abstinence-plus to older grades. Students must receive parental permission to take the courses, according to WLBT, and boys and girls take the classes separately.
Mississippi districts were not required to teach sex education under previous law, While schools were allowed to teach abstinence, board approval was required for curricula beyond that.
For every 1,000 15- to 19-year-old girls in Mississippi, there are 55 births -- compared to a national average of 34.3, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. That high birth rate is expected to have cost the state $154.9 million in 2009.
A report released in April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that schools have made little progress in recent years in teaching students about preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Among the country's middle schools, 11 states saw drops in the percentage of public schools teaching recommended topics between 2008 and 2010. No states saw increases. Among high schools, one state saw a drop in the percentage of schools teaching suggested topics, and two states saw increases.
Studies have found that comprehensive sex education more effectively delays sexual intercourse among youth and reduces teen pregnancy at a greater rate than abstinence-only education. Still, a 2010 study published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that abstinence education can delay sex among teens.
Researchers from the Guttmacher Institute reported in May that greater education about contraception is directly correlated to a decrease in risky sexual behavior among young adults.
Abstinence-only sex education programs are often criticized for failing to prevent unintended pregnancies, resulting from misinformation or simply lack of information regarding contraceptives. The curriculum has also been found to teach that condoms have a 30 percent rate of failure, birth control pills can cause cancer and pregnancy could result from touching another's genitals.
"Programs to increase young adults' knowledge about contraceptive methods and use are urgently needed," the Guttmacher study concludes. "Given the demonstrated link between method knowledge and contraceptive behaviors, such programs may be useful in addressing risky behavior in this population."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece incorrectly noted that three school districts adopted abstinence-plus policies. It has been updated to reflect that three school districts adopted split abstinence-plus and abstinence-only policies. We regret the error.