Monday, January 7, 2008

Troubling Facts About Abstinence-Only Education

Abstinence-only education, while it can be appealing in the abstract, doesn't work out there in the real world. A real world that, you know, promotes and sells sex to all of us.

President Bush has promoted abstinence-only sex education and the federal government has attached abstinence-only provisions to the receipt of federal grants. Generally,

Abstinence-only sex education is a form of sex education that emphasizes abstinence from sex to the exclusion of all other types of sexual and reproductive health education, particularly regarding birth control and safe sex. This type of sex education promotes sexual abstinence until marriage and either completely avoids any discussion about the use of contraceptives, or only reveals failure rates associated with such use.

This type of education is problematic for many reasons. For one, it denies the reality that no matter what you tell kids, some of them are going to have sex. Two, a program that tells gay youth not to have sex until they are married is not helpful. For the obvious reason, of course, that gay people cannot get married to the people they have sex with.

More troubling is that while Bush promotes this policy to appease his fundamentalist base who seems to hate any form of sexuality that is not "man + woman within a marriage," the list of those who oppose the policy, and who base their opposition on actual evidence, is long. One of the most prominent being the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocates for abstinence promotion and the delay of early sexual activity while urging responsible contraceptive use. The President's daughter, Jenna bush, has also publicly come out against abstinence-only after her admirable experience working as a UNICEF volunteer in Latin America.

But something that should concern us all, especially from a public health standpoint, is that several reports (inluding this House of Representatives Special Report) have found that abstinence-only programs deprive children of critical information about sexuality. Specifically, the House report found that "Eleven of the thirteen curricula most commonly used by [federally-funded abstinence-only] programs contain major errors and distortions of public health information." These programs, by the way, have received over $90 million in public funding.

What is some of the misleading publicly-funded info, you may ask? (All quotes from the House Report)

Well, "Several curricula cite an erroneuos 1993 study of condom effectiveness" distorting the rate of HIV transmission when a condom is used. (ie- it scares kids into thinking it's much easier to get HIV when they use condoms than it really is).

Some falsely state "as condom usage has increased, so have rates of STDs." (Even though, in reality most recent data indicates that the rates of "important STDs, such as syphilis and gonorrhea, have been dropping over the past decade" and condom use is associated with "reduced acquisition" of STDs. The STD that has seen an increase over the past decade is chlamydia, of which the rate of increase is attributed to "increased screening, imporved reporting," and other variables- not condom use.)

In addition, the curricula blurs "religion and science" by "presenting moral judgments as scientific fact." (Ya think?) "The SPRANS program mandates, for instance, that programs teach that having sex only within marriage 'is the expected standard of human sexual activity.'" Again, problematic for gay people why? You fill in the blank. "One curriculum that describes fetuses as 'babies' describes the blastocyst, technically a ball of 107 to 256 cells at the beginning of uterine implantation, as 'snuggling' into the uterus."

Some of the curricula also "promote stereotypes about boys and girls." For instance, girls care less about their futures than boys as one curriculum instructs, "Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men's happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments."


It would be helpful, one would think, for health information to, you know, actually inform, rather than distort health information. Especially if the purpose of the information is to help kids rather than impose fundamentalist Christian morality on them and control sexual behavior. Clearly, when some people seek to "save the children" they don't really mean it- believing that it's better to lie to kids and scare them than it is to be present honest information and expect them to make responsible, intelligent decisions.

But we already knew that didn't we ;-)

Read the report for more details regarding mis-information.

And now?

"In 2005 and 2006, researchers surveyed 2,000 teenagers in two rurual and two urban communities. They found that students who had had abstinence-only education were just as likely to have sex as a control group of teens who did not receive the instruction. Among sexually active teens in both groups, the average age of the start of sexual activity was just shy of 15. A majority of those had two or more partners, they said. Just 23 percent reported always using condoms.

The recent rise in teen births stands in stark contrast to more than a decade of decline. Between 1991 and 2005, the rate of births to females aged 15-19 plummeted by 34 percent, from a high of 61.8 births per 1,000 in 1991 to 40.5 live births per 1,000 females in that age bracket in 2005."

Teens are having sex, but are not using condoms. Is this a surprise, and can you blame some of them? They are irresponsibly told that condoms cause STDs, or they aren't told anything at all about condoms. I don't know which is worse, actually.

But this is a prime example of why religion does not often make sound public policy.

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