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 Does body acceptance promote lower teen pregnancy and abortion rates?

Pregnancy and abortion chartTeen-agers in the United States are far more likely to get pregnant and get an abortion than their counterparts in Western European countries.

Planned Parenthood officials believe that's because Europeans talk to their teen-agers about sex differently from Americans, viewing it as a public health issue rather than a moral, religious or political matter.

And now Planned Parenthood is planning to take Europe's blunt, matter-of-fact and sometimes humorous approach to teen sexual health and adapt it for Oregon. The ambitious long-term "social marketing" campaign is aimed at changing public attitudes and reducing unwanted teen pregnancies and abortions.

The effort is spearheaded by Mary Gossart, education and training director for the Eugene-based Planned Parenthood Health Services of Southwestern Oregon.

"The bottom line is the United States and the state of Oregon have the highest teen pregnancy and abortion rates in the industrialized world," she said.

For European youth, it's clear in their minds that sexuality and sexual relations are a normal, healthy part of being human - and it's not something you do when you're young.

Planned Parenthood is launching its "Rights, Respect and Responsibility" project this week with a series of meetings in Portland, Eugene, Medford, Grants Pass and Coos Bay, each featuring Barbara Huberman, a leading advocate of the European approach.

Planned Parenthood is launching its "Rights, Respect and Responsibility" project this week with a series of meetings in Portland, Eugene, Medford, Grants Pass and Coos Bay, each featuring Barbara Huberman, a leading advocate of the European approach.

Nearly 400 community leaders - including members of the clergy, health professionals, young people, business leaders, and public health and social service providers - filled a ballroom at the Valley River Inn to hear Huberman's pitch. She told them it won't be easy to change public attitudes.

"There are no politically noncontroversial strategies for effective prevention programs," said Huberman, the training and sex education director for Advocates for Youth. The group, based in Washington, D.C., promotes policies and programs that support adolescent sexual health.

Huberman has led study tours to Europe to talk to public health officials and teen-agers and find out what they are doing differently.

European teens are taught that sex "is a healthy party of who you are, but it has responsibility."

"Talking about sex in a realistic and sensitive way is still in the closet in America," she said.

Europeans take a pragmatic and open approach to discussing sex, she said. And they've accepted that most young people are not going to wait until marriage to have sex.

Scientific studies and opinion polls have shown that 80 percent of young people will have an intimate sexual encounter by age 20, and that 90 percent of couples have not waited for marriage, Huberman said.

"Waiting for marriage may be a religious belief, but the American public by a majority does not believe it or act on it," she said.

A majority of American adults want their children taught how to delay their first sexual encounter and how to protect themselves when they do have sex, she said.

"It's morally wrong to send young people into the adult world without the knowledge, skills and values to deal with sexual issues responsibly," she said.

Planned Parenthood plans to take 16 Oregonians to Germany, the Netherlands and France to study how those countries approach teen sexual health. That group of 16 will then become the cadre of a public campaign to adapt those strategies for Oregon.

The great unknown is whether an approach that works in European cultures will work in the United States, where abortion, birth control and sex education continue to be hot political and moral issues.

Marie Harvey, an associate professor of public health at the University of Oregon, said teen-agers are going to get information about sex one way or another, if not from parents or educators, then from peers and mass media.

Many parents are concerned that if teen-agers are taught about sex, they'll go out and do it, but Harvey said study after study has shown that not to be the case.

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