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7.1: Family Planning and Abstinence

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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How does someone decide when and if to have children?

Responsible and rewarding parenthood requires an enormous commitment. It calls for taking on serious responsibility for the lives of others. It calls for huge investments of thought, emotion, time, money, and effort. So it stands to reason that only when we truly want children and can adequately care for them should we become parents.

Despite the many burdens of parenthood, the great majority of Americans sooner or later become parents-over 90% have or adopt children. So the question for most of us is not whether or not to have children, but when.

Taking active steps to determine when to have children and how many to have requires effective family planning. In deciding when to become a parent or determining the number of children to have, an individual or couple can rely on two approaches. Abstinence is the safest and most certain choice for avoiding unwanted pregnancy. A second approach of using contraceptives is riskier. Using methods of contraception to reduce the chances of pregnancy relies on various methods of preventing pregnancy, some of which are more effective than others. However, none are as effective as abstinence.

Why Some People Choose Not to Have Children

Since teenage pregnancy creates so many problems, it is no wonder that the majority of adolescents do not get pregnant. In our concern over the high rate of adolescent pregnancy, we should not lose sight of the fact that most adolescents do not get pregnant. Having focused so far on why people have children, let us now turn to the opposite issue. Let's explore some of the reasons both adolescents and adults give for not having children.

Figure 6.1 Growth in the world population has skyrocketed in the last 100 years.

Most people who are not married or who are not in a stable relationship do not want children. The responsibilities and obligations of parenthood keep most couples from having children until they are surer of their relationship and more comfortable in their financial security. Some couples postpone having children for career reasons. Women, especially, may not be ready to interrupt career development with pregnancy and child rearing. Other couples simply cannot afford to have a child without lowering their standard of living.

Some couples do not want children at any time. They would rather spend their time, money, and energies on other things. Some do not want to bring children into a world that seems to have so much wrong with it. Others choose not to become parents as part of their religious vows.

Did You Know?

Currently, the world population grows by about 81 million people each year. By 2010, it is projected that the world population will grow by about 68 million each year.

The world population growth rate from 1990- 2000 increased 1.4% each year. The projected growth rate for. the years 2010-2020 is 1%. If the growth rate is declining, why does the population continue to grow?

Population Control

The single most important societal, rather than personal, reason for not having children is that there are already too many people in the world. Over population is a world situation in which the number of people in the world is more than the available resources can successfully support. Thomas Malthus, an English economist and clergyman, addressed the problem of overpopulation back in the 19th century. He observed that the population growth was doubling while the food supply increased more slowly. As a result of his observations, he predicted that the population of the world would sooner or later run out of food and starve.

Figure 6.1 shows that at least part of Malthus's prediction has come true. You will note that the population of the world grew very slowly until about 100 years ago. Since then it has skyrocketed. More than 6 billion people now live on Earth.

What Do You Think?

Why is overpopulation more likely in poorer countries? And why does it, in turn, keep them poor?

However, with respect to food availability, production has grown faster than Malthus predicted. Mass starvation has been avoided worldwide, but in some areas of the world periodic famine kills hundreds of thousands of people. Tragically, the poorest countries often have the fastest growing populations, which is one of the reasons they remain poor. For example, the population of the United States will double in 70 years, but the population of Pakistan will double in 28 years (if current rates of growth continue).

Malthus did not predict another serious consequence of over population. Over population causes environmental degradation, which is the breakdown of the environment. This problem involves how many people there are and how much of Earth's resources they use. In this respect, industrialized countries such as the United States harm the environment much more than less developed countries. Industrialized countries consume a far greater share of natural resources (such as oil) per person, and they pollute the environment more through their industries and their products (such as cars) than do other less industrialized countries.

What Do You Think?

Explain the statement “Children are both a blessing and a burden.”

In the United States, the birthrate (especially among adolescents) is higher among the poorer sections of society than among the more affluent. The younger the women with children, the greater the burden that is added to the population. Why is this true? The more children the poor have, the poorer they are likely to remain. However, the wealthier segments of society add more to the environmental burden through their excessive use of resources. So to solve the population and environment crisis, all of us need to change our behavior in important ways.

According to Figure 6.1, the world population remained at fairly constant levels for hundreds of years before it suddenly exploded. What happened? What two elements had to change for the population to increase so dramatically?

What Do You Think?

Explore the issue of population growth from a quantitative perspective (how many people there are) and from a qualitative perspective (how good your life is). How does one affect the other? What is quality of life? How does one define it?

Family Planning

During recent years, family planning has become an important part of population control. In addition to focusing on large trends in the growth of the population, environmental and social agencies propose that couples plan and space their children to slow down the rate of population growth.

Zero population growth is a situation in which the number of children born is no larger than the number of people who die during the same period of time. To attain zero population would require that each couple have two children, in other words, only “replace” themselves after their deaths. However, the present data show that approximately 150,000 people die every day in the world, while approximately 360,000 babies are born every day.

Predict Your School Population Using your school as a model, predict student population size in 50, 75, and 100 years. Make some assumptions about birth and death rates to reach your answer.

Abstinence is the safest and most certain choice for avoiding pregnancy. However, since most married couples do not want to abstain from sex, one practical way to avoid pregnancy is to use a method of contraception to prevent it. Some people may want to prevent pregnancy but may not have the means or knowledge to obtain contraceptives or use them correctly. This is especially true for young people. Some others are prohibited by their religious beliefs from using contraceptives. Ultimately, family planning is a matter of making choices within the constraints of one's life.

Why would parents who are older when they decide to have children help slow down the growth of populations? How would that work?

Debate! Should the government officially ask that couples limit family size to two children?

We have now discussed both the reasons for having children (and the consequences) and the reasons for not having children. Since we are particularly concerned about how these issues affect adolescents, let's explore how adolescents make these choices. How can you make your own choices and stick to them?

Activity 6-1: Reasons for Not Wanting Children


Changing my lifestyle, more responsibilities, bills, wet diapers- “Oh, yuk! No way!” There could be any number of personal reasons why a person or a couple would not want to have children. Why would a person decide against parenthood? This is a good time to consider these reasons and take control of your decisions about parenthood.


  • Activity Report


Step 1 On a separate piece of paper, write 5 reasons under each category:

a. Reasons for adolescents not to have children

b. Reasons for choosing to have children later, at a “planned” time.

c. Reasons people give for deciding to never have children.

Step 2 Upon completing your list, your teacher will divide the class into small groups. Take your list with you.

Step 3 Discuss the answers as a group.

Step 4 After the discussion, write your own position statement on this topic.


For most young people, planning a family is the last thing on their minds. They have more urgent things to think about-school, friends, parents, their bodies, clothes, and even the pimple on their nose. Having children seems so far in the future that they have trouble even imagining it.

Abstinence Persuade your class that abstinence is considered by many parents, teachers, and young people to be the only reasonable choice for adolescents. Agree or disagree.

Even though it seems like having children is far in the future to most adolescents, 3,000 American teenage girls got pregnant today, as many got pregnant yesterday, and another 3,000 will get pregnant tomorrow. Moreover, they did not get pregnant by themselves just thinking about it. Each of those girls who got pregnant engaged in sexual intercourse with a boy. Some of those girls may have said, “It won't happen to me.” But it did. It happened to them and to their sex partner.

The best and safest way to avoid pregnancy is to abstain or choose not to have sexual intercourse. A riskier choice is to reduce the chances of pregnancy by using contraceptives or birth control methods. However, it's important to understand that there is a chance that birth control methods will fail. With some methods the chances of failure are considerable. With others there is less chance of failure. But the fact is that those who do not abstain and do not use contraceptives can safely assume that sooner or later they will become pregnant or get someone else pregnant.

For some, these decisions will come easily. For others, they will be more difficult. Some will make a decision and stick to it. Others sometimes will and sometimes won't stick to their decisions. The least you can do is to learn about the available choices, and why and how to decide. What is at stake is nothing less than taking charge of a crucial part of your life.

In this section, we will discuss abstinence in more detail. In the next section, you will learn about specific contraceptive methods. Finally, in the last two sections we will return to the question of making choices and decisions.

Abstinence-What It Is and What It Is Not

The word abstain means to refrain from an activity by one's own choice. The activity can be anything. It does not have to be sex. In earlier times, the term referred to refraining from drinking alcoholic beverages. Now it is more commonly used to mean refraining from engaging in sexual intercourse.

  • Abstinence means choosing not to have intercourse for now. It does not mean giving up sex for life. That would be taking a vow of chastity.
  • Abstinence does not mean you cannot fall in love, express your emotions, share your secrets, be intimate, or plan your future together.
  • Abstinence does not mean you cannot be friends, have fun, or do things together.
  • Abstinence does not mean you are “frigid,” “impotent,” lacking a healthy sex drive, unattractive, not sexy, prudish, scared, cowardly, wimpy, old-fashioned, or not cool. Whether or not you decide to abstain has nothing to do with any of these things, and don't let anyone tell you, con you, sweet-talk you, or bully you into thinking otherwise.
  • Abstinence is a choice a person can make at any time. Even if someone has had sexual intercourse, that person can still choose abstinence. Abstinence is not “virginity.” It is not a line you cross over. matter how sexually active a person has been, that person can still decide to abstain, from now on.
  • Abstinence is a commitment. To be meaningful, the decision to abstain must cover a significant period of time-this is not a decision that should be faced every Saturday night. That's a waste of time. You are making an important “policy” for yourself. It's a rule that should allow you to put the matter aside for a while and not fret about it.

The period of time to which you commit yourself should not be arbitrary. It would make little sense to decide to abstain for the next 10 minutes. Deciding about issues as important as this one is a serious decision, not a joke. To specify “one month” or “one year” makes little sense, also. Why not “two months”? Like all arbitrary rules, it is hard to follow. You may be tempted to link it to your sense of maturity- when you feel emotionally, psychologically, socially, and morally certain that you are ready. However, if you do this, you will be taking a greater chance of being wrong or confusing a strong desire to do something (and sex can be a very strong desire) with “being ready” for it. Instead, it helps to tie the time frame to a meaningful landmark that has some important connection to your ability to handle the consequences of your actions. For example, you may abstain until you graduate from high school, obtain a college degree, or get married. Setting the mark on an external event is safer since you are not likely to be confused about whether or not you have graduated from college or you are getting married.

  • Abstinence means no sexual intercourse. Abstinence does not mean no sexual arousal or expression and satisfaction of any kind. But you can figure out perfectly well that there are a hundred ways of interacting sexually without “doing it.” People touch, hug, kiss, caress, and so on. Not all such activities are necessarily safe or desirable, and there are other decisions to be made about whether or not to engage in them. But at least, they will not result in an unwanted pregnancy.

Reasons for Abstinence

  • Abstinence is the only foolproof way to avoid unwanted pregnancy.
  • Abstinence greatly reduces the chance of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Protection here is not as absolute since some STDs may be transmitted through other sexual activities as well. But intercourse is one of the main ways in which these diseases (including AIDS) are transmitted.
  • Abstinence helps you avoid getting hurt emotionally. When people engage in sexual intercourse, they cross a line in the level of intimacy. Sex complicates and confuses relationships if people are not ready for it. You want to be cared for because of who you are, not because of the sexual services or favors you render. Be friends first. To decide together not to have sex reflects your respect and commitment to each other.
  • Abstinence does not guarantee that others will respect your right to say no. However, it is less likely to put you in high-risk situations. Hence, it makes you less vulnerable. Being sexually available increases the chances of your being taken for granted and possibly being coerced into sex.
  • Abstinence follows the traditional moral principles held by many people in our society of avoiding sexual intercourse until marriage.
  • Abstinence not only protects you, but it also streamlines your life. You know your own rules and where you stand. This makes it easier to communicate to others. As a result, much of the uncertainty and guesswork goes out of your life. It saves you a lot of time and energy, which are better used on other worthwhile goals, including sex at the right time, with the right person, for the right reasons.
  • Abstinence eliminates risk.

Reasons Adolescents Give for Not Choosing Abstinence

The following are some reasons offered by teenagers for why some adolescents do not choose abstinence.

  • Some adolescents focus more on the physical pleasure of sexual intercourse, thus taking the risks listed above.
  • Abstinence often requires going against peer pressure.
  • Abstinence may result in losing a partner who demands sex. Sex becomes the price to pay for love, romance, friendship, or whatever it is that one values or fears to lose. One out of two females and one out of four males say they first engaged in sex because of affection for their partner.
  • Abstinence is seen as what parents are always pushing, and some teens don't want to do everything their parents tell them to do.
  • Sexual intercourse is seen as what grown-ups do, so some young people confuse having sex with being “adult.”

What Do You Think?

Why is communication an important part of practicing abstinence?

How to Abstain

The following steps will help you stick to your decision to choose abstinence.

  • Decide for yourself, in private, that you will not have sex for now and for a particular period of time.
  • Communicate your decision to someone you trust. This may be a close friend, a sibling, a trusted adult, or your parents.
  • If you have a friend or a potential sexual partner, or when you meet one, talk to him or her about your decision before you encounter situations in which sex would be possible or likely. Don't wait until you or your partner is sexually aroused or close to crossing the line. You need a cool head to give and hear the message. If you cherish and love the person, say so. If you feel sexually attracted to the person, say so. None of these feelings disqualify you from deciding on abstinence.
  • Make your partner a patty to the decision. Make a joint commitment. Then work out a plan to carry it out. Be clear about what is acceptable and what is not in your interactions. Don't improvise or compromise.
  • Ideally, your friend or partner will agree with you and support your decision, even if he or she would rather not choose abstinence. Your decision will have to be respected and, once the issue is settled, it has to stay settled. It is not up for review every five minutes.
  • Don't tolerate endless nagging, harassing, shaming, bullying, or any other tactic. (“If you love me, you will sleep with me” is a form of blackmail. Don't yield to it.) If push comes to shove, you may have to part company. Yes, it's tough, but there is no other way.

What Do You Think ?

Why do you think it is so hard to say no to people in some situations? Are some situations easier than others? Explain why.

Activity 6-2: Who Decides?


Most adolescents in the United States do not get pregnant. But there is a large group of teenagers who do get pregnant, and some become pregnant many times, which has an enormous impact on others, as well as on their own lives. The children they bring into the world face many hardships. Their behavior is also very costly to society.

What can, or should, society do about this situation? Role-play the decisions you would make to help solve this problem.


  • Activity Report


Step 1 Here is the situation: The United States Senate is concerned about welfare reform. A sub-committee is conducting a congressional hearing to consider ways to reduce the costs of adolescent parenting. Your class has been invited to participate in these hearings.

Step 2 Your teacher will divide the class into groups.

Step 3 Each group will prepare an oral argument favoring one of the following solutions:

  • Provide more sex education and contraceptive services.
  • Provide government money to improve the living conditions of adolescent parents.
  • Provide training in abstinence.

What conditions will have to be in place before you will feel like you are ready to become a parent ?What will you want to have accomplished first before you take on that responsibility? How will you make sure that you don't become a parent before you are ready?

Review Questions

  1. What is the difference between personal and societal reasons for not having children? Give an example of each.
  2. What are some examples of family planning?
  3. What are two reasons that adolescents give for not wanting to have children?
  4. What does abstinence mean? List five things that abstinence does not mean.
  5. Why does abstinence make sense as a way to avoid pregnancy and STDs? Name four reasons.
  6. What are four steps in practicing abstinence?

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