Oct 28, 2013

State Health Services Launches New Abstinence-Only Website in Texas

The state's new website, OurTown4Teens.org, is part of a media campaign paid for by abstinence-only federal funds.

The Texas Department of State Health Services’ new website, OurTown4Teens.org, is part of a media campaign paid for by abstinence-only federal funds.

By Amy Madden

For Reporting Texas

The Texas Department of State Health Services recently launched a $1.2 million, abstinence-only website and ad campaign, continuing an education strategy that critics say is a significant factor in the state’s high teen birthrate.

The website, www.ourtown4teens.org, launched Sept. 2, and the department does not yet have criteria in place to evaluate its effectiveness. Offering information for each county in Texas, the site is one facet of an abstinence program that includes TV and radio ads aimed at providing community leaders with resources to develop community-specific approaches to combating teen pregnancy.

“The website is part of our abstinence education campaign,” said Christine Mann, an assistant press officer at the department. “It’s really geared toward [community leaders] so that they can develop their own custom-made teen pregnancy prevention program.”

Radio advertisements that began earlier this year promote the website, which includes PowerPoint presentations, webinars, articles, studies and reports on teen pregnancy prevention. Some worry that such an approach isn’t adequate, given that Texas’ teen birth rate, though declining, is still one of the highest in the nation – nearly 47 births for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, compared with the national average of about 31 births, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a Washington, D.C.-based interest group.

“The pregnancy rate to teens has slightly improved … but it’s still pretty bad,” said Jose Medina, deputy communications director at the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that monitors conservative issues and organizations. “Currently, Texas has the fifth-worst rate of teen pregnancy in the country, and we are the No. 1 state in repeat births to teens.”

He said Texas’ teen birth rate is so high partly because of the way schools educate – or fail to educate – students about sex.

During the 2007-08 school year, 94 percent of Texas school districts employed a strict, abstinence-only message, according to a study by the Freedom Network. Though that number was down to 75 percent in 2010-11, according to the study, abstinence remained the most common approach to sex education in Texas schools.

“Our policies are pretty much to blame,” Medina said. “[The state] has an insistence on leaning toward abstinence-only programs, which have been shown repeatedly to have failed.”

The website is partially funded by money from the Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program, a federal program signed into law in 1996 and renewed by the Senate in 2010. Because states that accept funding are required to use the money to teach abstinence, www.ourtown4teens.org must abide by the grant program’s eight-point definition of abstinence education. The list includes having the “exclusive purpose” of teaching the benefits associated with abstaining from sexual activity.

“It’s geared toward prevention for teen pregnancy,” Mann said. “The funds that are paying for this are abstinence-only funds, so that’s why it’s an abstinence-only website.”

The new website is a replacement for the health department’s previous abstinence campaign, www.power2wait.com. Developed in 2008, that website was a toolkit of interactive games teachers used to supplement abstinence programs.

Mann said the health department is phasing out the older website to “go in a different direction,” and will instead focus on empowering community leaders and organizers to take communitywide approachs to preventing teen pregnancies. The old site will disappear before August 2014, when the state’s fiscal year ends. Federal money hasn’t been available to evaluate the effectiveness of the old site, Mann said.

During development of www.ourtown4teens.org, the state sought advice from Kristen Plastino, an obstetrician and director of sex education the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Plastino, who was not paid, told developers that the best way to make the site effective would be to serve the needs of individual communities.

“I think the best way to mobilize a community is to just really look at the needs of the specific community. You can’t say, ‘Oh, it works in this part of the country,’ and toss that into another part of the country,” Plastino said. “You really need to do a community needs assessment and make a grassroots effort behind people that are interested in the subject.”

Plastino said that both abstinence-only and comprehensive programs – terms she doesn’t like to use because of their political implications – have been proven effective in different situations. Comprehensive programs include discussion of issues such as contraception.

“I think what we need to look at is effective programs – not whether they’re abstinence-only or comprehensive,” Plastino said. “And [by] effective programs, I mean as evidence-based programs that have been shown to change behavior.”

She added that programs in southern San Antonio that focus on delaying sexual activity have been effective with younger children, while programs that discuss contraception as students get older also show positive results.

Critics note that abstinence-only education programs haven’t been broadly effective. States like  California, which don’t accept Title V federal funding and are free to teach comprehensive sex education programs, generally have lower teen birth rates than Texas does.

A study conducted by University of Georgia researchers found that states with strict abstinence education laws have considerably higher teen birthrates than those that do not. Another study, conducted by the policy research company Mathematica, found that Title V programs have no significant impact on eventual sexual behavior.

“We spend a lot of money teaching abstinence-only,” Medina said, “and what that has gotten us is the [nation’s] fifth-worst rate in teen pregnancy.”