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States Move Away From Abstinence-Only Sex Education as Teen Birth Rates Rise

Emily Pelino of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina is working to change the way sex ed is taught in the state.FNC

High school students from Connecticut to California could soon be learning about abstinence-only sex education — as ancient history.

At least 24 states and the District of Columbia are moving from abstinence instruction to a more comprehensive approach that includes lessons about STD prevention and contraception, a massive shift away from the wait-until-marriage method pushed heavily by the Bush administration.

Many states adopted abstinence-only education in return for federal funding, but 13 years after Congress designed the programs in 1996, teen pregnancy rates are on the rise and critics say kids are simply not listening to the abstinence-only message.

"It's bad — we have the ninth-highest pregnancy rate in the country and it's clear that our students need more information," said Emily Pelino, education director for the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina (APPCNC).

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But not everyone thinks the abstinence-only approach needs to be scrapped. John Rustin, director of government relations for the North Carolina Family Policy Council, points to the low number of districts that haven't offered anything other than abstinence.

"We think that sends a pretty strong message that the vast majority of school districts are very pleased and content with abstinence-until-marriage education," Rustin said. "It is effective and provides a great deal of information to students about sexual activity."

North Carolina law currently mandates the teaching of abstinence until marriage. School boards are allowed to expand the program to teach comprehensive sex education, but only after public meetings, parent approval of the curriculum and votes that many call political lightning rods.

Critics say that path is often confusing, controversial and overwhelming, forcing school boards to stick with safer ground and teach abstinence only. Out of 115 school districts in the state, only 10 have actually taken the extra steps to expand programs beyond abstinence and teach their students about prevention and contraception. The APPCNC says that leaves teens searching for answers on their own, leading to misinformation and harmful results.

"They don't live in a bubble — they do have access to the Internet," Pelino told FOX News. "They are getting information from a variety of places, but my experience, both as a teacher and in this role working with students across the state, is that they have the wrong information."

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, more than 20,000 girls between 10 and 19 years of age became pregnant in the state in 2007. That number has been climbing steadily and has sparked alarm among lawmakers and health officials who think the abstinence-only approach is naive.

"We want everyone to be abstinent, but we know that young people are engaging in sexual activity and we want them to be safe," said Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat from Asheville who sponsored the new bill.

The new legislation, known as the Healthy Youth Act, would create a two-track system in which each district would be allowed to offer separate classes teaching abstinence and courses that would focus on contraception and prevention as well. Parents could decide which system is better for their children. Fisher says it would take political pressure off school boards to hold public hearings.

"By making it a two-track system where parents or guardians decide what track their students will take, then it frees up the school board to supply school systems with the curriculum that we believe students need," Fisher said.

But Rustin said teaching contraception and disease prevention is similar to teaching kids how to be safe when they engage in other risky behaviors like smoking, drinking and taking drugs.

"North Carolina public schools have a no-tolerance policy when it comes to tobacco, alcohol and drug use. Our question is, why in the world would we take a different position when it comes to sex?"

A similar proposal was defeated two years ago, but supporters say the Healthy Youth Act has more support now from both sides of the aisle. Despite polls showing that a majority of North Carolina parents support implementing prevention and contraception into abstinence curricula, the North Carolina Family Policy Council believes otherwise and promises a hard fight.