America recorded 1.2 million abortions in 2008. While this sounds like a lot, the availability of birth control and sex education has greatly reduced the U.S. abortion rate over the years. So has the invention of new post-sex “Plan B” drugs.

Europe boasts still fewer abortions, but they are serious about reducing the numbers. We only play at it. For eight recent years under Bush II, our government’s concept of sex education was abstinence education. Amazingly, some of those pointless federally subsidized programs still exist, but the Obama administration has mostly replaced them with more useful ones.

Now though the tide is turning once again. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, is ideologically anti-abortion and unlikely to shake loose any of these more useful funds. He is from the popular “no sex education-no birth control” school of prevention, long endorsed by bishops, Republicans, evangelicals, and crib manufacturers.

In any event, the largest part of lawmaking about sex education and abortion falls to the states, whose policies are diverse almost beyond belief. This divergence shows up in the data. Take teen pregnancies. New Hampshire recorded just 16 per thousand in 2009, with most other Northeastern states coming in under 30. Down South and out West it was different. Mississippi, Texas, and Oklahoma each reported over 60 per thousand. Wags have suggested that sex has yet to make significant inroads into New Hampshire, while others credit differing demography. Cooler heads, however, have identified more assertive attitudes toward birth control and sex-ed as the main reason for the difference.

Suffice it to say the reproductive rights wars rage on. Nebraska passed a law requiring health screening before an abortion. It was so constitutionally suspect that the attorney general refused to defend it. Oklahoma passed an even worse bill, so bad that the governor vetoed it — only to have the legislature override him. In Colorado the anti-abortion forces have taken to equating fetushood with slavery in an attempt to justify a constitutional prohibition.

Then, as usual, there’s Texas. Not for nothing does Texas boast the highest birth rate in the nation. It also ranks third in teen pregnancy and first in repeat teen pregnancy. It turns down federal funding for normal sex education so that it can focus its energies on the abstinence kind. And just to consolidate its national position, it makes contraceptives very hard for youngsters to come by.

This is particularly ironic because recent research has shown that kids are more responsible about using condoms than adults. That’s a good trick since many U.S. sex education programs don’t even teach birth control. Other countries not only teach it but advertise the products. Not surprisingly these nations have lower teen birth rates.

One thing is clear: all this political objection to sex education, birth control, and abortion is faith-based. But surprisingly, that base is no longer simply Roman Catholic. The Northeast, where Catholics are strongest, is all for sex ed, and Italy itself has the lowest birth rate in Europe. No, nowadays it’s the evangelicals who want to keep women in their place, and they’re doing a heckuva job.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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