Just Say No to Abstinance-Only Sex Education

Comprehensive sex education and abstinence-only sex education for adolescents actually have a lot in common. Both strive to teach teens the benefits of delaying sexual activity. However, in abstinence-only curricula, the emphasis is on delaying sexual experiences until marriage. Both warn of the dangers of HIV and STDs as well as unplanned pregnancy. Again, the methods by which the respective approaches differ in protecting the health of teens, are different.

Comprehensive sex education strives to teach that if teens are going to engage in sexual activity, they should take measures to protect themselves from HIV and other STDs as well as accidental pregnancy. Abstinence only teaches only what the name implies: abstinence.

Though I’m sure that abstinence-only curricula contain many lessons and exercises for understanding sexuality and relationships, its main goal is prevention through abstinence.

How do these two approaches differ in their effectiveness? It depends on the source you read.

This Los Angeles Times article pointed out:

A study released in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a rise in the teenage pregnancy rate in 2006, the first such increase in 15 years. Between 1991 and 2005, the rate dropped 34%.

In this article by Dr. Tom Coburn, he writes:

There is some new research showing that some private-sector abstinence-only programs are successful in reducing teen pregnancy and STD rates. And the National Institutes of Health attributes the dropping teen pregnancy rate to more male abstinence. I think that's because people are talking more about abstinence.

And this assertion from proponents of abstinence-only sex education, found in a New York Times article:

Advocates of abstinence-only education often say it has resulted in a decline in teenage pregnancy and childbirth, pointing to the fact that the rate of teenage pregnancies (births plus abortions) is at its lowest level in 30 years.

But that rate peaked eight years before abstinence-only education came to the fore and has been declining steadily ever since. And children born to teenage girls still account for 11.5 percent of all births in the United States

In 1996, the federal government attached a provision to the Welfare Reform Law establishing a federal program for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This program, Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, dedicated $50 million per year to be distributed among states that choose to participate. States accepting the funds are required to match every four federal dollars with three state-raised dollars (for a total of $87.5 million annually, and $700 million for the eight years from FY 1998 through 2005). Programs that receive the Title V funding are prohibited from discussing methods of contraception, including condoms, except in the context of failure rates.

The Mathematica Policy Research study on abstinence education looked at four different abstinence education programs that were selected as subjects for a long-term evaluation. This study reported that teen participants in these abstinence programs did not abstain from sexual activity more than non-participants, when measured 2½ to 5½ years after the program ended.

Further, in December 2004, a report released by Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) surveyed many of the curricula used in the programs reviewed by the Mathematica study and found that they contain false, misleading, and distorted information about the risks of sexual activity. The report examined the accuracy of the most popular curricula used by federally funded abstinence-only education programs and found more than two-thirds of these programs distort information and mislead young people by giving them false information about abortion and contraception, particularly about the effectiveness of condoms.

How do American teens, parents and teachers feel about abstinence-only sex education programs? This from International Planned Parenthood:

Surveys of teachers, parents and young people consistently show little support for abstinence education. In the US a recent major survey found overwhelming support for sex education in school and little local controversy about its provision and organisation within schools. However, the survey did find some differences in parental views on the focus it should have with 46% preferring an abstinence-plus approach, 36% a comprehensive approach and 15% abstinence only.

Advocates For Youth takes this position:

Each year, U.S. teens experience as many as 850,000 pregnancies, and youth under age 25 experience about 9.1 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs). By age 18, 70 percent of U.S. females and 62 percent of U.S. males have initiated vaginal sex. Comprehensive sex education is effective at assisting young people to make healthy decisions about sex and to adopt healthy sexual behaviors. No abstinence-only-until-marriage program has been shown to help teens delay the initiation of sex or to protect themselves when they do initiate sex. Yet, the U.S. government has spent over one billion dollars supporting abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Although the U.S. government ignores it, adolescents have a fundamental human right to accurate and comprehensive sexual health information.

In the face of these findings, President Bush proposed a 2008 budget of $204 million for abstinence only sex education programs.

I found some hope in this Salon article:

As evidence of the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs stacks up, a growing number of states are saying: "Keep the money, please. We don't want it!" At least 14 states are taking a stance against wasting federal funds on sex education programs that not only don't work but are potentially harmful, and are rejecting their share of the $176 million annual budget. As Ned Calonge, chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Health, put it: "Why would we spend tax dollars on something that doesn't work?"

Let's hope the trend continues and get down to the work of teaching kids what's right for them, rather than what's right for the fundy-Christians' distorted view of sexuality.


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