Teenage Pregnancies Soar as Church Looks the Other Way
By Pavol Stracansky
WARSAW, Jun 1, 2010 (IPS) - Pressure from the Catholic Church to effectively stop sex education in schools is threatening the health of tens of thousands of teenagers who fall pregnant every year because they have little or no knowledge of safe sex, education groups in Poland have warned.
They say many youngsters go into their first sexual relationships with little or no idea of contraception and the health consequences of unprotected sex, as conservative clergy covertly stifle any school sex education that does not conform to the Church’s strict Catholic teachings.
Anka Grzywacz, educator with the Polish Ponton Group of Sex Educators, told IPS: "The Catholic Church has a huge influence in Poland and in schools. The Catholic Church does not want sex education to be taught and, therefore, schools simply do what the Church wants and just do not teach it."
More than 20,000 Polish girls below the legal age of consent give birth each year, according to official figures. But it is believed that many more teenagers fall pregnant, and because of Poland’s strict abortion laws and the unwillingness of doctors to perform even legal abortions, they undergo dangerous illegal abortions or head abroad to have the procedure carried out.
Women’s rights and family planning groups estimate there are more than 100,000 illegal abortions carried out in Poland each year.
They say that the high rate of teenage pregnancies is down to poor or non- existent sex education in schools.
Sex education was made compulsory in schools last year but critics say that many schools do not offer the subject to pupils, or if they do it is taught so poorly, often by priests or fervently religious external educators completely ignorant of anything connected to the subject, that it is worthless to teenagers beginning sexual activity.
In surveys carried out by family planning groups, teenage students have recalled how teachers in supposed sex education classes told them that condoms are useless as they do not protect against sexual diseases, were the "work of Satan", and that sex for any reason other than reproduction is a mortal sin. Others say that their teachers were often too embarrassed to discuss sexual themes and instead talked about family and religion.
"The fact that sex education in Polish schools is called ‘education in family life’ and not ‘sex education’ says a lot," says Grzywacz. "Theoretically sex education is compulsory but it is not a priority and in reality no one checks to see if schools are providing it. And many schools are not.
"The Catholic Church also has a huge influence on top politicians in Poland. They are mainly right-wing and conservative and want to have good relations with the Church. This transfers to schools as well where there is usually a priest present in schools every day, at least to teach religious education which is compulsory."
Sociologists point to the hold the Catholic Church has over education in Poland. Dr Marek Rymsza with the Institute for Public Affairs think-tank in Warsaw, tells IPS: "The Church has an indirect influence on the whole education system as so many Polish people are members of the Church and they co-shape civil society in our country."
"The Church wants only certain things taught, for example family life and preparation for family life, not subjects like abortion, sexuality, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights or other intimate sexual issues," added Grzywacz.
Family planning groups say that the Church’s pervasive influence in society also means that teenage girls have no recourse at home to information on sex. Many parents brought up in strict Catholic environments – Poland is one of the most strongly Catholic countries in the world, and more than 90 percent of the population say they are Catholic – remain unwilling to have their children learn about sex. Teenagers fear to discuss the subject with conservative parents.
This means many teenage girls - unable to obtain the contraceptives alone until they are adults - would rather risk having unprotected sex than ask for advice or help in obtaining contraception at home, women’s groups say.
"The issue is still very controversial and many parents believe that speaking about sex and issues related to it encourages young people to have sex.
"Many are still ashamed of the subject as sex is a taboo in Polish society. They are also still under the influence of the Catholic Church as many of them were raised in a conservative Catholic environment. This is why schools have such an important role to play in sex education in that they take this out of the parental environment. They must get involved," said Grzywacz.
The Church has steadfastly opposed sex education.
Family planning groups warn that unless sex education in schools is improved, teenage pregnancy rates will soar, problems with HIV/AIDS and transmission of other sexual disease will become much worse and, with some of the world’s strictest abortion laws and many doctors unwilling to perform the procedure even when it is legal, more and more young girls will undertake risky terminations in Poland’s huge underground abortion industry.
"From our work we have seen that kids are heavily influenced by a very sexed media in Poland and they think that sex is cool. More and more kids are having sex younger, but unless they are properly educated, this can lead to serious problems with health such as sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies.
"The figures that are around for underage births are simply those that are registered. Because abortion is to all intents and purposes impossible legally in Poland there is no way of knowing how many young girls have illegal, possibly dangerous, abortions.
"The figures for underage births may be just the tip of the iceberg in relation to the total number of unwanted pregnancies overall," said Grzywacz.