Why Are We Still Funding Abstinence-Only Sex Ed?
Continued from previous page
Conservatives respond to attacks on abstinence-only programs by pointing to a recent study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Health that showed that abstinence-based sex education delayed onset of sexual intercourse in young teens more than interventions that focused solely on condoms or on comprehensive interventions. The problem is that the programs included in the Archives study do not meet the government's A-H criteria and therefore wouldn't be eligible for federal funding. The programs also focused on students in sixth and seventh grade; that's 11 to 13-year-olds -- a group that is less likely to be sexually active.
Meanwhile, there are wider consequences of continued funding for abstinence-only sex education. For one, the government's implied support for these programs gives fodder to those conservatives who believe it is morally wrong to teach teens about personal responsibility, sexuality, and about using contraceptives to avoid pregnancy and disease.
In Wisconsin, for example, the governor recently signed a law that requires any school that provides sex education to adopt programs that use a comprehensive curriculum, including information about birth control and sexually transmitted disease as well as abstinence. The law also specifically bans abstinence-only programs. In response, Scott Southworth, a district attorney from Juneau County, called the sex-education law a " sick and shameful piece of legislation" that encourages sex among minors. Southworth sent a letter to some Wisconsin school districts warning them that the new law essentially forces them to "instruct children on sex-for-pleasure," and exposes teachers to the risk of criminal liability. More from the letter:
"Forcing our schools to instruct children on how to utilize contraceptives encourages our children to engage in sexual behavior, whether as a victim or an offender."
"It is akin to teaching children about alcohol use, then instructing them on how to make mixed alcoholic drinks."
What is so maddening about folks like Southworth and others who insist on abstinence-only sex education is that they seem to live in a fantasy world where chaste teenagers can be taught to "just say no" to premarital sex. In the 2007 report on abstinence-only programs that was submitted to HHS, the authors report that "about half of all high school youth report having had sex, and more than one in five report having had four or more partners by the time they graduate from high school. One-quarter of sexually active adolescents nationwide have an STD, and many STDs are lifelong viral infections with no cure."
Insisting that schools provide an abstinence-only curriculum is not only hopelessly naïve; it is also categorically unfair to young people, according to the authors of a Journal of Adolescent Health review article on abstinence policies and programs:
"We believe that abstinence-only education programs, as defined by federal funding requirements, are morally problematic, by withholding information and promoting questionable and inaccurate opinions. Abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental rights to health, information, and life."
If they need any more evidence that teenagers must have comprehensive sex education, Mr. Southworth and his ilk should spend time (as I did last weekend with my 15-year-old daughter) watching a marathon of MTV's "16 and Pregnant." A reality TV show produced in partnership with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, each episode provides the graphic saga of a young girl's pregnancy and subsequent birth of her baby. These are not sugar-coated tales and most of the girls (and the baby's fathers) seem to have been woefully uninformed about how to prevent pregnancy -- and clearly they were not practicing abstinence. The episodes are cautionary tales that likely have a much realer impact on teen behavior than abstinence-only programs.