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Press Release · January 5, 2006

Special Survey On Population: Let’s Talk About Sex: Californians Say Education, Access To Birth Control, Curb Social Ills

Widespread Concern About Population Growth, But Little Knowledge About Its Causes

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 5, 2006 — From evangelical Christians to liberal Democrats, Californians find common ground on controversial issues related to sex education, birth control, and abortion, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. But on a number of topics where knowledge is prized, residents also reveal a loose grasp of the facts.

At a time when abstinence-only programs are in vogue at the federal level, the vast majority of Californians (78%) – including Latinos (74%) and evangelical Christians (66%) – prefer sex education programs that also teach children about obtaining and using contraceptives. One explanation for the strong support: Residents believe deterrence works. Most say sex education in schools is at least somewhat effective in helping teens avoid pregnancy (62%) and sexually transmitted diseases (71%), with public school parents even more likely to hold these views than the general public. And an overwhelming majority of state residents (89%) believe that access to contraception is very (71%) or somewhat important (18%) for reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies in their region. As a result, most Californians say sex education is a very important part of school curriculum (75%) and favor government funding for programs that provide teens with birth control options (76%).

“Despite the perception that ideological and political attitudes make for deep divisions over issues such as sex education, we find just the opposite,” says statewide survey director Mark Baldassare. “The widespread support for sex education programs seems to be fueled by belief in their efficacy.”

So how early should sex education in the schools begin? A strong majority of Californians (68%) believe that their local school districts should require such programs in both middle and high schools. Half (50%) say it is appropriate to teach middle and high school students about how to use and where to get contraceptives, and 54 percent advocate teaching both groups about how to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Interestingly, Latinos are more likely than Asians to support starting early with programs related to contraception (56% to 39%) and sexually transmitted diseases (58% to 44%).

While residents are nearly universal in their support for sex education and birth control access, not all feel that these programs are distributed equitably: About one in three Californians (36%) believes that lower-income neighborhoods are less likely than other neighborhoods to have sex education in their local schools, and half (51%) also say that lower-income residents are less likely than others to have access to birth control methods or contraception. These views may help fuel the perception that more could be done to provide information about and access to contraception and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Currently, fewer than one in 10 Californians thinks their local public schools are doing more than enough when it comes to teaching sex education, and others are roughly divided between saying schools are doing just enough or not enough (33% to 36%). But however lacking they find their schools in this regard, residents are most comfortable with decisions about sex education being made at the local level – by local schools and teachers (32%) or by parents (21%). The least popular option? Putting the federal government in charge (9%).

Interest in Population Issues High, but Knowledge Needs Improvement

Californians are great believers in access to contraception and sex education, but how much do they really know about the topics? A slim majority (52%) report that they are highly informed about issues regarding birth control methods and contraceptives, but this number masks significant differences across racial and ethnic groups. For example, only 24 percent of Asians and 38 percent of Latinos say they know a lot about these issues. When it comes to sex education, a similar pattern holds: 61 percent of adults say they know a lot about the issues involving sex education – including the basics of human reproduction, abstinence, pregnancy prevention, and sexually transmitted diseases – while only 38 percent of Asians and 42 percent of Latinos express this view. Even though majorities of Californians report a high level of knowledge, significant numbers say they are interested in learning more about birth control (38%) and sex education (53%). Latinos are the most likely to express interest in learning more about these topics.

State residents reveal some confusion when it comes to a more controversial aspect of birth control – emergency contraception. Although an overwhelming majority of Californians today (85%) say they have heard of emergency contraceptive pills – sometimes called “morning-after” pills – and a majority (58%) favor allowing women to have access to these pills without a doctor’s prescription, only 18 percent are aware that pharmacists can provide emergency contraception in California today without a prescription.

And on the macro level, Californians also lack good information about the major drivers of population growth in the state. California’s population is predicted to increase by 9 million residents in the next 20 years. Despite expressing a great deal of angst about the trend – 55 percent say this population growth is a bad thing for themselves and their families – most residents fail to identify the most significant cause of this growth. While births to current residents are the single biggest contributor to the state’s population growth, most state residents (53%) believe immigration is responsible. If Californians’ preferences for number of children remain constant, births to residents are likely to remain the key source of population growth. Thirty-six percent of Californians – and 54 percent of Latinos – say three or more is the ideal number of children for a family to have.

Californians Concerned, Unified on Abortion Issues

Abortion politics will be central in early 2006 as the Supreme Court considers new challenges to abortion laws and the campaign season begins in earnest. Most Californians (60%) say the Supreme Court’s decisions on abortion are very important to them personally. Given questions about Samuel Alito’s views on abortion, 34 percent of Californian’s currently say that his appointment to the Supreme Court should be confirmed, 29 percent say it should not, and 37 percent are undecided.

Where do Californians stand on the issue of overturning Roe v. Wade? Seven in 10 (71%) want the decision to hold, while 22 percent want to overturn it. Majorities of all major racial and ethnic groups support maintaining the status quo, but Latinos (32%) and Asians (25%) are more likely than blacks (19%) and whites (17%) to want to overturn the decision. Among evangelical Christians, 42 percent want the ruling reversed and 52 percent do not. Of the 40 percent of Californians who say they have moral objections to abortion, 38 percent want the Supreme Court to overturn the abortion decision and 54 percent do not. Although most Californians do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, a majority of residents (56%) think it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States. How should this be accomplished? Residents say that providing greater access to contraception (66%) would be more effective than enacting more restrictive abortion laws (20%).

When it comes to electoral politics, abortion is also a pivotal issue for many voters. As Californians look ahead to the 2006 races for governor and U.S. senator, eight in 10 say the candidates’ positions on the issue of abortion are very or somewhat important to them personally.

More Key Findings

  • Residents Unaware of Drop in Teen Pregnancy Rate — Page 4
    Although statistics indicate that teen pregnancy rates have declined across the state, few residents (13%) are aware of this. In fact, 72 percent believe they have increased (38%) or stayed the same (34%). And 74 percent believe unplanned pregnancy among teens is a problem in their region.
  • Ratings for Governor, Legislature Remain Low — Page 21
    Majorities of state residents (58%) and likely voters (53%) say they disapprove of the way Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is handling his job. The state legislature also receives low marks, with 54 percent of Californians and 60 percent of likely voters disapproving of its performance.
  • Californians: State Headed in Wrong Direction — Page 21
    During the height of the holiday shopping season, state residents express concern about their financial prospects in 2006: More Californians expect bad times financially than good times in the coming year (46% to 41%). In keeping with this gloomy outlook, a strong majority (60%) also believe the state is headed in the wrong direction.

About the Survey

This survey on population – made possible by funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. This is the third survey in a three-year series intended to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussions about a variety of education, environment, and population issues facing California. Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,504 California adult residents interviewed between November 30th and December 13th, 2005. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on methodology, see page 19.

Mark Baldassare is research director at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998. His recent book, A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.