a bird and a bottle

What happens when there’s no sex ed?

With all the recent bad news about abstinence only programs here in the U.S., one hopes that their popularity is on the decline. Sure, there are still plenty of communities in which v-cards and silver rings are the thing, but there’s at least hope, with so many states refusing abstinence only funding, that its influence will wane.

For those who still doubt the potentially disastrous effects of refusing to educate teenagers about contraception (not to mention preventing the transmission of STDs), we can direct their gaze to China’s big cities to see what one result of such a policy might be. As the NY Times reports today, abortion rates are on the rise in China’s urban centers. Why is this happening? It’s not married women trying to avoid fines for violating the country’s one child policy. It’s young urbane women who, though sexually active, have never been taught about contraception or even the basic mechanics of pregnancy.

Health experts say that many single women lack even a basic understanding about reproductive health and contraception. At the same time, premarital sex, once rare, is now considered common, particularly in urban areas. So as more single women are having sex, despite often knowing little about it, they also are having more abortions.

“There is a blind spot in sex education in China,” said Xu Jin, director of the [women’s health] clinic, which is run by Marie Stopes International, a nonprofit group that provides sexual and reproductive information and services. “We are here to fill the hole in the system.”

Using abortion as a way to fill a knowledge hole is the worst nightmare of the wingnut antis. And I don’t think it’s necessarily the best approach either; better would be to educate women on how to prevent pregnancy if they do have sex. Instead, the U.S. – and it seems China, too – have decided to ignore that need and leave women to figure it out on their own. The result? Higher rates of unintended pregnancy and women who have no idea about how their own bodies work. Case in point:

One afternoon in mid-April, Dr. Deng was between appointments when a black telephone rang on her desk. It was a hotline for single women.

“You have a pregnancy problem?” Dr. Deng asked. “Where are you?”

“Gansu,” the caller answered, naming one of the poorest provinces in western China.

“How old are you?” Dr. Deng continued.


The woman had had sex twice in early March and had taken a morning after pill. Her period had come on March 17. She had not had sex since then but it was late April and her period was late. She was worried. Dr. Deng offered reassurance: no sex, no pregnancy.

Oy. On the whole, knowledge is greater about sex and pregnancy here, even (i think) among communities where abstinence only is the norm because of the ubiquity of sex in pop culture. That said, is this really a level of knowledge and a way of dealing with reproductive health that we want to emulate?

Yeah, I don’t think so either.


3 Comments so far
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I wonder what low-income women do. The article says abortions cost $65 at public hospitals, but that’s only by exchange rates; relative to the cost of living, it’s almost $300, even though Beijing’s average level of income is on a par with this of the poorest urban areas of the United States. The article doesn’t say anything about fee waivers, so there could be a widespread problem of back-alley abortions…

Comment by Alon Levy

That’s a great point, Alon. And it translates to the U.S., too. Here, first trimester abortions cost several hundred dollars (and they get more expensive with each passing week). And with the Hyde Amendment, federal medicaid funding can’t pay for abortions. Some states do pay out of state coffers, but many don’t.

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