* State has nation's highest teen birth rate

* New law allows abstinence plus sex-ed teaching

* Studies show sex-ed works to prevent teen pregnancy

By Emily Le Coz

TUPELO, Miss., Aug 26 (Reuters) - Artasia Bobo, a 16-year-old Mississippi high school sophomore, was only 12 when she got pregnant and doesn't recall receiving much in the way of sex education.

Holding her 3-year-old daughter, Annsley, after cheerleading practice recently, the honor-roll student said she's now an advocate for comprehensive sex education offered as soon as possible.

"What I went through is nothing any girl would want to go through," she said. "It changed my life. I love my daughter, but if I could go back in time, my life would be a whole lot different."

Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state, has the nation's highest teen pregnancy rate. Yet until this year, the state allowed schools to forgo sex education entirely.

That changed with a state law passed last year that mandated school districts adopt either abstinence-only or abstinence-plus sex education policies. Before the new law, any district that did teach sex education had to teach abstinence-only.

Under the new law, a majority of Mississippi's public school districts this year adopted abstinence-only policies that avoid or downplay the issue of contraceptives.

Twenty other U.S. states and the District of Columbia also require sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based non-profit organization focusing on sexual and reproductive rights.

After the law took effect at the beginning of July, 81 districts chose abstinence-only and 71 chose abstinence-plus, the state Department of Education reported. Mississippi kept no record of how many districts taught abstinence-only under the old law, department spokesman Jon Kalahar said.


"SERIOUS PROBLEM"

Mississippi reported 55 births per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19 in 2010 - more than 60 percent above the U.S. average, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in April.

The state also has one of the nation's highest infant mortality rates and among the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections among teens and young adults, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.

"It was obvious we had a serious problem in the state," said Democratic state Representative Cecil Brown, who chaired the committee that championed the bill. "You can't stick your head in the sand."

Abstinence-only allows districts to teach about the benefits of avoiding sex until marriage, the consequences of bearing children out of wedlock and how to reject sexual advances. Such programs also teach that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Although a discussion of condoms or contraceptives is allowed under this policy, it cannot include demonstrations of use and must present the risks and failure rates of such devices, the law states.

Abstinence-plus must include all those topics and can also teach about the causes and effects of sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent them, according to the law.

"Before this year, not a single school district had adopted any policy on sex education," said Jamie Holcomb Bardwell, director of programs for Women's Fund of Mississippi. "The fact that 71 adopted abstinence-plus is one of the biggest victories for young people in Mississippi this year."

Bardwell said she's encouraged that many of the districts with the highest teen pregnancy rates adopted not only abstinence-plus policies, but also implemented sex education programs proven effective for changing teen behavior.


COMPREHENSIVE SEX EDUCATION

"Research shows that when young people have access to a curriculum that's not abstinence-only ... when it includes medically accurate information, they're more likely to have lower pregnancy rates and lower sexually transmitted infection rates," she said.

Studies published this year by the Guttmacher Institute show teens who received comprehensive sex education, including instruction on birth control, waited longer to have sex and had lower rates of pregnancy.

That might have been the case for Bobo, but such a course wasn't offered when she got pregnant. Nor will it be offered this year, since her district chose an abstinence-only policy.

A statewide survey conducted in 2011 by the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University found most parents support comprehensive sex education in schools.

Among them is 40-year-old Renee Bobo, Artasia's mother.

"They're getting it from TV and from friends, anyway," said Bobo, who works nights so she can care for her granddaughter while Artasia attends school. "They should get the straight facts from an informed instructor."

The Lee County School District in northeast Mississippi adopted an abstinence-only program for the first time this year. Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said health classes had previously touched on the subject but this will be the district's first dedicated sex-education class.

The school board picked abstinence-only because "we don't want to come across as saying, 'Hey, premarital sex is OK, let us show us how you do it without getting a disease,'" Weeks said.

Sixteen percent of Lee County births in 2010 were to teens, according to the Mississippi Department of Health. In Itawamba County, where Artasia attends school, the rate was 16.5 percent.

Coahoma County in the Mississippi delta, which at 23 percent had one of the state's highest rates of births to teens, recently adopted an abstinence-plus program after four years of teaching abstinence-only, said Superintendent Pauline Rhodes.

"I've seen first-hand the devastation of children having children, and I have seen students on their way to a promising career have to drop out," Rhodes said. "I've always felt that until we can get a handle on teen pregnancies, we will not be able to get a handle on juvenile delinquencies." (Editing by David Adams and Jim Loney)

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