March 18, 2009 by Daniel Stack
Yesterday I mentioned how condoms and abstinence-only education have been in the news lately.
With the United States having a new president, many expect a shift away from abstinence-only sex education in schools. At present, the United States federal government will only provide funding to state schools for sex education if they teach abstinence-only. For purposes of this discussion I’m going to quote the wikipedia article on abstinence education which gives the following characteristics of abstinence-only education:
- Has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
- Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;
- Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
- Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;
- Teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
- Teaches that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
- Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and
- Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.
Title V-funded programs were not permitted to advocate or discuss contraceptive methods except to emphasize their failure rates.
Similarly there is discussion on how to fight AIDS in Africa. The United States provides funding for abstinence-only programs and the Catholic Church has also indicated support of that method exclusively. The pope has even made statements that condom use will neither solve the AIDS crisis there and will likely make it worse.
Now I agree with the thought that the only way to be certain of avoiding a pregnancy is no sex. And the only way to sexual transmission of HIV with any certainty, beyond no sex, is a monogamous relationship with someone who does not have HIV or AIDs.
But… I question what the goals of these abstinence-only education programs are. Are they really to reduce incidents of teen pregnancy and the spread of AIDs? Or are they to promote a certain type of behavior?
The April 14, 2007 Washington Post had an article examining the effectiveness of these programs. In summary it indicated that abstinence-only programs have no real effect:
Authorized by Congress in 1997, the study followed 2000 children from elementary or middle school into high school. The children lived in four communities — two urban, two rural. All of the children received the family life services available in their community, in addition, slightly more than half of them also received abstinence-only education.
By the end of the study, when the average child was just shy of 17, half of both groups had remained abstinent. The sexually active teenagers had sex the first time at about age 15. Less than a quarter of them, in both groups, reported using a condom every time they had sex. More than a third of both groups had two or more partners.
In this article, Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, concluded that “[t]he most effective programs are those that say abstinence is the best choice but birth control and protection are also worth knowing about.”
I think abstinence-only programs are ignoring the realities of kids they are need to reach. People were shocked when Gloucester High in Massachusetts supposedly had a “pregnancy pact” among its girls. Many high schools, including the one my wife teaches at, have well-used maternity leave policies for the students. And sadly, teen fathers being involved with their children is all too rare. (As an important aside, I have nothing but admiration for single mothers. Or single fathers for that matter. There have been single parents in my family. I’ve seen how difficult it is.) A lot of adolescents are having sex. And a lot of them are having babies. And acquiring STDs. We need to work with reality as it is, not as we feel it should be. Even in schools that don’t have abstinence-only programs there is considerable debate as to whether or not the students should have access to contraceptives. Parental consent is, understandably, a big issue. But teens aren’t asking for parental consent before engaging in sexual activity.
What do I, as the opinionated author, suggest? Well, my wife tells me that sending our two daughters off to be nuns is not an option. I think that the American Academy of Pediatrics has it right when they state in Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health and Committee on Adolescence 108 (2):
Programs that encourage abstinence as the best option for adolescents, but offer a discussion of HIV prevention and contraception as the best approach for adolescents who are sexually active, have been shown to delay the initiation of sexual activity and increase the proportion of sexually active adolescents who reported using birth control. Programs that have linked educational curricula with access to reproductive health services and comprehensive community-based interventions have also documented reductions in pregnancy rates.
This same article also incorporates the parents in this process:
Counsel parents about sexuality. Suggest opportunities for them to provide guidance about abstinence and responsible sexual behavior to their children. Encourage reciprocal and honest dialogue between parents and children. Counsel parents and adolescents about circumstances that are associated with earlier sexual activity, including early dating, excessive unsupervised time, truancy, and alcohol use. Ensure that adolescents have opportunities to practice social skills, assertiveness, control, and rejection of unwanted sexual advances.
What I like about this article (which is quite readable for the layman), beyond the fact it is written by medical professionals and not politicians, is that it recognizes the ideal but also deals with reality. It recognizes that adolescents will make their own decisions but also emphasizes the important role of the parent.