Abstinence-Only Education: Counterproductive and Harmful

Editorial: Abstinence-Only Education:  Counterproductive and HarmfulAbstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not only a monumental waste of $300 million a year in taxpayer dollars, they are actually counterproductive and harmful to America's young people.

While most parents want their children to delay sexual activity, the reality is that 47% of high-schoolers are sexually active. Four million young people in the U.S. contract sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) each year. Teen pregnancy rose in 2006 by 3%, the first increase since the early 1990s. Clearly we are failing to promote sexual health among young people.

Research has found that young people taking "virginity pledges" were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than those who had not pledged. Research has also found that in communities with more virginity pledgers, overall STD rates were significantly higher than in other settings.

In addition, abstinence-only curricula promote outdated and sexist gender stereotypes, antigay bias, and ignorance about HIV. Here are some examples:

"Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men's happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments." (Why kNOw)

"A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts?" (Sex Respect)

"At the least, the chances of getting pregnant with a condom are 1 out of 6." (Me, My World, My Future)
(In fact, used correctly, condoms are 98% effective in contraception.)

"AIDS can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact." (Reasonable Reasons to Wait)
(In fact, HIV is transmitted only by blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.)

"Many homosexual activists are frustrated and desperate over their own situation and those of loved ones ... some people with AIDS are now suffering because of the choices they made." (Facing Reality)

Under the federal definition of abstinence-only programs, students must be taught that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of all human sexual activity." Programs accepting these funds are prohibited from discussing contraceptives, except in the context of failure rates. Usually the only time homosexuality is discussed is in the context of HIV risk.

With over $1 billion spent, there remains not a single peer-reviewed study in a respectable scientific journal showing that abstinence-only programs work to help young people make good and healthy decisions about sex. In April 2007, an evaluation of abstinence-only programs commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found them to be ineffective in increasing teen rates of abstinence.

Comprehensive programs about sexuality that include information about both abstinence and contraception have been found to be effective in delaying the onset of sexual intercourse, reducing the number of partners, and increasing contraception and condom use among teens. No such findings exist for abstinence-only programs.

But President Bush is seeking a $28 million increase in abstinence-only education. At a recent hearing on the subject at which experts testified to the harmful effects of these programs, Rep. John Duncan of Tennessee said, "It seems rather elitist to me for people who maybe have degrees in this field to feel that because they've studied it somehow they know better than the parents what is best for [their children]."

It is not elitist for young people to get the information they need to maintain their health. It is not elitist to demand that young women not learn sexist stereotypes, or that the homophobic bullying of the playground not be reinforced in class. It's time we ended taxpayer funding for this counterproductive and wasteful program. Call your U.S. Representative and Senators (202-224-3121) and ask them to support science over a failed conservative ideology. If you're not sure who your Congresspeople are, go to votesmart.org to find out.