More States Rejecting Abstinence-Only Programs
> 12/18/2007 3:50:26 PM

In the face of a report stating that teen birth rates in the U.S. have risen for the first time in more than 15 years comes newfound criticism of so-called "abstinence-only" sexual education programs, which gained popularity over the last two decades and grew to represent a central element of our current president's domestic social policy. The primary purpose of these programs is to reinforce to middle and high school children the belief that abstaining from all forms of sexual activity until married to the partner of one's choice is the only way to prevent pregnancy or ensure protection from various sexually transmitted diseases. While practicing complete abstinence will undeniably ensure that young women do not become pregnant or contract STD's from infected partners, an ongoing string of clinical reports asserts that the abstinence-only-until-marriage education policy currently funded by the U.S. government does not lead to safer behavior on the part of its teen subjects; teaching the value of abstinence while stressing the absolute necessity of safe sex and the proper way to use various contraception methods is a more realistic and workable approach. In response, an increasing number of states have refused federal funding that would require them to tailor their policy to fit the abstinence-only model.

Sex-ed is almost always painfully uncomfortable for both the students sitting through it and the teachers required to administer it, but it is also a necessary aspect of early adolescence. The human body has, for better or worse, evolved to develop an overwhelming desire to reproduce as soon as physically possible. That age, according to practical and societal standards, is simply too young, hence the need to teach kids about the many undesirable possibilities that come with unprotected (and presumedly premarital) sex. In an ideal environment, parents would be the sole parties responsible for imparting this invaluable wisdom to their children, thereby eliminating the need for school programs. But many teens cannot rely on their parents for balanced information due to overly protective instincts or religious convictions. Willful ignorance is not an option: according to frequently repeated surveys, 50-60% of graduating high school seniors have had sex on at least one occasion, and a far greater percentage of Americans have sex at some point before exchanging vows.

The Netherlands, a country decidedly not in line with the United States on social policy, has a teen pregnancy rate 9 times lower than that observed in the U.S. The most commonly cited reason for those very desirable statistics? Comprehensive, government-sponsored early intervention sex-ed programs. Ignoring the topic or hiding it behind vague shades of moral purity only further confuses the issue, and telling kids how to behave safely does not amount to encouraging promiscuity; any teacher who clearly steps over that line and informs adolescents that all sex is risk-free as long as condoms are involved should face immediate termination. Still, moralizing and misrepresenting statistics to children who don't know better is no solution. Without sitting through these classes, a layman may understandably remain confused about their content, but a Senate report found that some of the texts endorsed by this policy furthered verifiably false statements regarding sexual behavior. Examples include printed claims that condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission more than 30% of the time and that pregnancy occurs after 1 in 7 sexual encounters even when a condom is used. When advocates resort to obvious falsehoods in order to further their point, one must wonder what their ultimate goals might be.

A policy whose legal foundation states that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity" implies that any other behavior is unacceptable or "wrong" in some way, but teen pregnancy rates suggest that policies designed to inspire fear and guilt are not particularly effective motivational tools. Concepts regarding the morality of consensual sex should not play a part in publicly funded sex ed classes. The responsibility of the education system is to teach children the literal truth about sexual behavior and its many consequences, not to scare them into making promises that most will not keep. Unprotected sex is never a good idea, particularly when one is unfamiliar with his or her partner. Any cursory review of human biology and sexually transmitted diseases will make this abundantly clear. And abstinence may represent a very admirable adherence to personal principle. But the U.S. government does not serve itself or its citizens by attempting to moralize science. We can only ensure that teenagers know exactly what might happen if they make the wrong decisions; the rest is up to them.

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