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Abstaining from Sex Education Politics

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Message Gene C. Gerard
Earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) held a conference on sexually transmitted diseases. The conference was slated to include a panel discussion entitled “Are Abstinence-Only Until Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?” However, Indiana’s Republican Congressman Mark Souder complained to the Health and Human Services Department about “the controversial nature of this session and its obvious anti-abstinence objective.” Consequently, the title was changed to “Public Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth,” and advocates of abstinence-only sex education replaced two members of the panel. It’s troubling that a conservative Republican was able to wield so much influence over a federal agency at the expense of science.

A spokesman for Rep. Souder said he was concerned that the panel would promote nothing positive about abstinence-only education. Apparently, that was because one of the panelists was scheduled to address the evidence linking abstinence-only education and rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases. This panelist and another individual were removed from the panel and replaced by Dr. Patricia Sulak and another physician, both of whom are proponents of abstinence-only programs. Although the other panelists went through a peer-review screening process, neither of these individuals did. And while the other panelists had to pay their own way to attend, the CDC used taxpayer dollars to pay for both abstinence proponents.

Dr. Sulak is the director and author of a pseudo sex education program entitled “Worth the Wait.” This program is used in grades six through high school in 31 school districts in Texas. According to a review of the program by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, Worth the Wait relies on messages of fear, discourages contraception, and attempts to make students feel guilty rather than educating them.

The Worth the Wait program discourages any meaningful discussion of contraception. An entire lesson is entitled “Why Contraceptives are not the Answer for Teens.” Dr. Sulak apparently believes that if contraception is presented as improper, teens will simply choose not to have sex. Yet studies suggest that almost half of all teenagers are sexually active. By refusing to discuss contraception, this program leaves teenagers more likely to engage in sex without contraceptives, making them susceptible to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

And the program provides misleading information by encouraging students to take so-called virginity pledges. Students are asked to sign a pledge that they will not have sex until marriage. And it advises students, “Research has shown that teenagers who sign abstinence pledges are much less likely to have intercourse.” This has been proven false many times over. Studies have shown that at best, abstinence pledges simply delay the onset of sex. And studies have demonstrated that teenagers who take such pledges are less likely to use contraceptives when they become sexually active.

A 2005 study of abstinence-only sex education programs in Texas, where Worth the Wait is used, found that they had “little impact” on teenagers’ behavior. The study by the Texas Department of Health determined that girls in the ninth-grade were five percent more likely to engage in sex after taking abstinence-only programs. And boys in the tenth grade were 15 percent more likely to engage in sex after participating in abstinence-only classes. The study’s lead researcher concluded, “We didn’t find strong evidence of program effect.”

Ironically, the day before the CDC panel on abstinence-only programs was held, Harvard University released the results of a comprehensive study on abstinence pledges. The National Institute of Child Health and Development conducted the government-sponsored study. Over 14,000 teenagers were interviewed between 1995 and 2001. The study found that 52 percent who took the pledge had sex within one year of doing so.

Conservative Republicans have aggressively funded abstinence-only education programs since President Bush took office. Over 100 such programs have been funded in recent years. Congress allocated $168 million for abstinence programs in last year’s budget. This year, $182 million was funded for abstinence-only education, and $204 million has been allocated for 2007. But it isn’t benefiting our nation’s teenagers.

In 2004 the House of Representative’s Government Reform Committee issued a report on federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs. The report determined that out of the 13 most popular programs, 11 contained “unproved claims [and] outright falsehoods.” Some of the false statements included assertions that a man can get a woman pregnant by merely touching her, that women who have abortions are prone to suicide, that AIDS can be spread through sweat, and that condoms cannot prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Clearly, these programs supplanted science with political ideology.

It was inappropriate for Congressman Souder to exert so much influence over a federal agency. And it’s offensive that the Bush administration allowed him to do so. Science should remain free from political persuasion and ideology. The health and welfare of the country’s teenagers depend on abstaining from sex education politics.


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_______________________________________________ Gene C. Gerard has taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years at several colleges in the Southwest and is a contributing author to the book "Home Front Heroes: Americans during Wartime," by (more...)
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