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Why Is the Religious Right Obsessed With Other People's Sex Lives?

Abstinence-only sex ed is a tool of ideological management that is deeply entrenched in American culture and social policy.

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I believe building a culture of life in our country also means promoting adoption and teaching teen abstinence, funding crisis pregnancy programs and supporting the work of faith-based groups.

This approach to sexuality education can have appeal among an even larger group of people, those who may base their political opinions on nonreligious principles. They might harbor a mild distrust of how government spends their money. After all, public education is the largest program financed mainly by local taxation. They may be disappointed with reports about the state of public schools and the lackluster results of the latest federal push for educational reform, the No Child Left Behind Act. And they would be persuaded by secular arguments based on reason and scientific evidence of the need to intervene in a public health crisis such as high rates of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence-only education advocates have deployed this scientific sounding approach for over twenty years.

Borrowing a Public Health Frame

Despite the fact that abstinence-only education is rooted in conservative religious principles, many of the arguments abstinence-only educators use with the general public are secular ones that appear to use logic and scientific principles. Mary Beth Bonacci, chastity educator and founder of an abstinence promotion website Real Love Incorporated, refers to a flawed study by Dr. Susan Weller rejected by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1993 when she states,

The AMA Journal did a study using condoms -- 30 percent failure rate in preventing AIDS transmission. You’d say, "70 percent were safe, that’s not bad." But is it safe when death is the option? Would you fly an airline that had only a 30 percent failure rate?

Choosing the Best is a set of abstinence education curricula for grades seven through twelve that meets federal guidelines for abstinence-only funding. Choosing the Best PATH, for grade seven, also focuses on alleged condom unreliability:

Couples who use condoms for birth control experience a first-year failure rate of about 15 percent in preventing pregnancies. This means that over a period of five years, there could be a 50 percent chance or higher of getting pregnant with condoms used as birth control.

Of course the "failure" rate is due to inconsistent condom use, a common result of inadequate training, rather than to the average two percent condom breakage rate. In addition, the statement calculates probability incorrectly, resulting in a highly misleading -- but scientific sounding --  message.

Some programs use fear to motivate students to promote abstinence. A middle school student handbook from the FACTS program reads:

There are always risks associated with it [premarital sex], even dangerous, life-threatening risks such as HIV/AIDS. Using contraceptives does not change this for teenagers.

Comprehensive sexuality education has successfully used the public health approach, which defines a health problem, identifies risk, and designs interventions based on the science of epidemiology. Since abstinence-only education often attempts to hide its ideological perspective, abstinence-only spokespeople will co-opt public health vocabulary in their rebuttals in order to sound "scientific." In answering the question, "Is Choosing the Best medically accurate?" its promotional materials state,

Choosing the Best curricula contain facts gathered from the most reliable and current sources of information available, such as peer-reviewed, published journals and government agency publications.

The Medical Institute for Sexual Health tries to legitimize the abstinence-only message in a medical framework. This organization was founded in 1992 by Joe McIlhaney, a gynecologist and social conservative who jumped on the early (and since disproven) test results that condoms do not protect against HPV, human papillomavirus. A section of its website on HPV includes minimally accurate medical information but adds an abstinence message:

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