NBC's Doc: Just Say No to Abstinence

Is it possible to discuss teen birth rates without attacking abstinence-only education? Apparently not for NBC's Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman. During a May 28 "Today" show discussion of high schools providing birth control to teens without parental notification, Snyderman cast doubt on abstinence-only education, saying, "I don't think there's any healthcare professional who says [abstinence education] is the magic bullet and it's really working." School-provided birth control is a hot topic again due to the rising number of teenage pregnancies at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts. Pregnancies at Gloucester High soared from 4 to 17 in one year, spurring some school health officials to propose offering free birth control to students without parental notification. Dr. Brian Orr, the school's clinic director, resigned last week after the Addison Gilbert Hospital, which funds the clinic, opposed the idea. Host Meredith Vieira gave Snyderman a second opportunity to bash abstinence when she asked "Teen pregnancy is up for the first time in 15 years, why is that?" Snyderman responded:

I don't think we know. It's dropped the last five to six years, now a blip on the screen. Perhaps because abstinence-only isn't working and perhaps it's just one of those year-long blips that will go down again. I don't think we know. But every time we see something with an uptick like this, at least we get concerned.

Wouldn't the five to six year decline in teen pregnancy rates suggest that the new emphasis on abstinence education programs implemented by the Bush administration since 2001 has successfully reduced teen pregnancy rates? Alternately, why blame abstinence education for the one-year increase in pregnancy rates when comprehensive sex education, which emphasizes condom use rather than abstinence, is far more widely taught in the schools? Earlier in the discussion Snyderman commented "we spend $176 million a year on abstinence-only programs." However, a 2004 Heritage Foundation report found that the government spends $12 on "safe sex and contraceptives" for every $1 spent on abstinence education, and a third of the government's "safe sex" funds went directly to "fund contraceptive programs for teens." Here's the full transcript of Vieira and Snyderman's discussion:

MEREDITH VIEIRA: Dr. Nancy, why is it that so many health officials support this notion of providing birth control to students without parental permission?

NANCY SNYDERMAN, NBC NEWS CHIEF MEDICAL EDITOR: One of the big concerns is what happens to teenagers when they do become pregnant. We know it's a fast track to poverty, that teenage girls who get pregnant are less likely to finish school. The risk, just the physical risk to mom and baby at time of delivery is higher for teenagers. And I was shocked to find that a third of all U.S. Girls less than the age of 20 get pregnant at some time in their lives. So this is not something that's a little blip on the screen. We're talking about real numbers. And some people have really raised questions about this abstinence-only program. We spend $176 million a year on abstinence-only programs and I don't think there's any healthcare professional who says that's the magic bullet and it's really working. So, you have the parent side where you say not my kid. And then you have the health provider's side where you say, you know what? We have an issue we have to address. The big question is, where do we address it? How do we address it? Where do we put our money? What's a parents right to know? And that's what a lot of this conversation comes down to.

VIEIRA: But there are risks to birth control. There are a certain risks, certainly to the pill, As a parent --

SNYDERMAN: Absolutely correct.

VIEIRA: I would probably want to know what a child is taking into their body.

SNYDERMAN: You know you raise an interesting question and that is, it's a sort of slippery slope of I think my kid's having sex. We're not sure my kid's having sex. Well, Condoms are okay, but I don't want my child taking a pill. The patch, the pill, oral contraceptives they're real medicines. And most of the time they're phenomenally safe, but yes, they can have complications. I think most parents are going to say. If my child is taking any medicine, I want to be a part of that decision making.

VIEIRA: Teen pregnancy up for the first time in 15 years, why is that?

SNYDERMAN: I don't think we know. It's dropped the last five to six years, now a blip on the screen. Perhaps because abstinence-only isn't working and perhaps it's just one of those year-long blips that will go down again. I don't think we know. But every time we see something with an uptick like this, at least we get concerned.