Arkansas bans sex ed despite highest teen birth rate in the country

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The law was designed to bar Planned Parenthood from working with schools.

In its zeal to stigmatize and restrict abortion, Arkansas is now going to limit who can teach students about sexual and reproductive health. 

The state just passed a "student protection" law, signed by GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson, that bars any organization that performs abortions from teaching sex education in schools. The law was designed to bar Planned Parenthood from working with schools.

The bill's sponsor, GOP Rep. Mark Lowery, insists that even if Planned Parenthood weren't  teaching students about abortion, "an organization that has that mindset" cannot "check that at the door." 

Lowery has framed this law as "protecting students." But the bill deprives students of comprehensive sex education from the largest provider in the nation — Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood has curricula for students of all ages and covers everything from body image to birth control.

And students in Arkansas are in desperate need of sex education grounded in reality rather than the long-discredited abstinence fantasies the state requires. A recent study found that the millions of dollars the federal government spent on abstinence education had no effect on teen birth rates in the country overall, but in conservative states that embraced abstinence education, teen birth rates actually increased. 

Arkansas has the highest teen birth rate in the country, and being a teen mother can profoundly affect future achievement. Only 40% of those teen mothers will finish high school and only 2% will finish college by age 30. 

Teen mothers and their babies also face increased health risks, including pre-term births and low birth weights. Teen mothers are less likely to seek out or be able to obtain prenatal care early in pregnancy, with only 56% of teens age 15-19 receiving care in the first trimester, and that number dramatically decreases in the second and third trimesters. 

Arkansas also has a high maternal mortality rate, the fifth-highest in the country. This may be, in part, because so many pregnancies in the state — around 55% in 2011 and — are unplanned, no matter what the age of the mother. Unplanned pregnancies can mean delayed prenatal care and, like teen births, they're associated with lower birth weights and premature births. The GOP members of the state Legislature don't seem interested in addressing that actual harm, however. 

Arkansas' anti-abortion activists have succeeded in pushing Planned Parenthood out of providing sex education, but largely at the expense of their own residents, particularly the teens they say they're so eager to protect.