Saturday, January 09, 2010

Ending the fantasy of abstinence based sex education.


Saturday's column.

A sex ed fantasy

Instruction founded on abstinence doesn’t work

While I was busy grading final exams back in December, President Obama signed the 2010 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Nearly lost within the machinery of health care legislation, one small cog in this bill actually does something to improve the health of young Americans: It pulls funding from the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program and the abstinence-only program associated with the Adolescent Family Life Act. With a stroke of his pen, the president ended the billion-dollar farce of tax payer-funded abstinence based sex education.

Closer to home, back in November, the Wisconsin Assembly passed The Healthy Youth Act, which restores common sense to educating students about their own biology by using a curriculum proven “to reduce risky behaviors that result in unintended teenage pregnancy and STDs.” The Senate version is awaiting action.

Not everyone is happy about the prospect of better informed teenagers. Three community members from the West Bend School District Human Growth and Development Committee objected that these laws are headed in the wrong direction – specifically, away from abstinence-based programming. Their objection, however, depended on a sense of misplaced religious and moral outrage. Neither scientific evidence nor calm moral reflection supports their point of view.

First, the evidence.

Congress authorized a study by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. as part of its evaluation of abstinence-based educational programs. The study, released in April 2007, found compelling evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs just don’t work. Young people who participated in abstinence-only programs were just as likely to have sex before marriage as their peers who didn’t participate. They also have their first sexual experiences at about the same age and eventually have about the same number of sexual partners. And in programs that use a “virginity pledge,” students had sex before marriage at the same rates as non-pledging students but were actually less likely to use contraception or get tested for STDs when they became sexually active.

An example of the alarming decline in education about proper birth control – and so, about safely avoiding sexually transmitted diseases – is that by 2002 one-third of American adolescents had not received any instruction on contraception: one third. This is no different from insisting that one third of all sixteen-year-olds just getting their driver’s licenses be kept out of driver education courses. We’re seeing exactly this kind of wreckage among teenagers today – not just in terms of STDs and unwanted pregnancies, but in the number of abortions that wouldn’t have happened had these young drivers, so to speak, been taught to fasten their seat belts and stop when the light is red.

Even worse, a 2004 congressional report found that federally funded abstinence-based curricula often “misrepresent the effectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy” by exaggerating their failure rates. This is like telling kids not to bother with seat belts, since they don’t work that well anyway.

Frankly, that’s criminally negligent.

Second, some moral reflection.

If people want to object to a fact-based sex education program on moral grounds, rather than scientific ones, here’s something to consider: Ignorance does not produce moral character. Ignorance does not improve a person’s sense of moral responsibility or promote good judgment. In fact, ignorance produces exactly the opposite: ignorance produces bad judgment, bad judgment leads to irresponsible action, and irresponsible action, over time, erodes moral character. This much, at least, the history of our civilization tells us.

Sexual education programs that ask 15-year-olds to put on blindfolds by “just saying no” to their own biology, contribute to moral weakness in young people, not strength. The self-discipline of moral strength does not derive from blind obedience but from the harder work of understanding oneself. Contrary to Orwell’s deadly slogan, knowledge is strength, not ignorance.

A prudent and temperate life, to use some old fashioned language, requires the kind of education that inoculates young people against the dangers of ignorance. We need to encourage the effort young people make to understand themselves, not reward the kind of ignorance that leads to increased pregnancy rates.

Fortunately even though the consequences of ignorance are contagious, a real, science-based education is the best inoculation against the kind of moral laziness ignorance encourages.

By some estimates, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $1.3 billion since 1996 on programs that didn’t work. The federal report demonstrating the initiative’s failure came out in 2007 – two years ago.

It is possible our local Human Growth and Development Committee is unfamiliar with these two year-old results and may wish, based on the evidence rather than their personal convictions, to reconsider the best interests of West Bend students.

Postscript: by a weird [I-can't-imagine-that-it's-really-a] coincidence, the paper ran a guest column next to mine, written by some of the same members of the Human Growth and Development Committee I mentioned in the column. They complain, once again, that the state legislation promoting real sex ed "sends kids the wrong message". You can read their observations here.

Frankly, their ignorance of good science and sound educational practice is not nearly as startling as the inherent racism of their argument.


beesbess said...

Great column. Have you seen the Washington County Eagle Forums invite(on the eagleforumwc site)for "A day at the Capitol?" Ginny wants all college kids, teenagers, and parents to show up to "see a legislative session in progress." Can you guess when it is? This Wednesday- the 13th. She never mentions that the legislative session they will be attending is the vote on this healthcare bill. How disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

What about the global warming cult? Or Obamahymns?

Anonymous said...

"The bill has a goal to 'increase contraceptive use' among teens, while it prohibits schools from using instructional methods and materials that 'promote bias against sexually active pupils.' In other words, it will be appropriate to teach about condom use, while ignoring the values that teach sex outside of marriage is wrong."

Sex outside of marriage is wrong? Since when? Oh, that's right, that's another firmly-held Christian belief.

I get mad when a belief is stated as a fact. In fact, the wrongness of sex outside of marriage is a belief.

Anonymous said...

I think Obama is a lot smarter than a lot of Conservatives give him credit for. Have you seen all the stuff he's signed off on while everyones hootin and hollerin about Health Care?

Giving Interpol full diplimatic immunity? Removing Abstinance education? These are all things that Conservatives would flip a cow over if it wasnt under the Health Care shadow.

Well done Barack.

John Jost said...

Always good to find out, in retrospect, that a column was worth reading. Thank you, Mark.

I like the analogy between sex education and driver education - something even abstinence proponents can understand. In my case, earlier, I was taught to drive, but much earlier, sex ed had to be mostly self-taught.

You wrote: "Ignorance produces bad judgment, bad judgment leads to irresponsible action, and irresponsible action, over time, erodes moral character." That is a fine definition of the karma concept, that is, "What you do, you become." Had you added the reverse proposition: "Knowledge produces good judgment, good judgment leads to responsible action, and responsible action, over time, builds moral character", it would have looked much like one of the Buddha's own two-part utterances.

It is no coincidence that a dissenting column sprang up next to yours. That is why I just killed my online Daily News subscription. I expected daily news, not daily right wing propaganda. I can read your columns right here, no net loss.

Interesting contrast between comments by two Anonymous(es)? "What about the global warming cult?" and "The wrongness of sex outside of marriage is a belief." One is wrong, the other is right, but people will disagree on which.

Mpeterson said...

Hey John,

The comments about morality are essentially Aristotle's -- although if you look pretty much anywhere in the world, and at any time, these same views are echoed.

Moral character is not produced by ignorance; quite the opposite.

I am a bit concerned about the "coincidence" of my column appearing beside a column from the very people I was criticizing -- but when I refer to the members of the committee I was actually referring to a letter they sent to the Journal last month addressing roughly the same points.

I'm also not thrilled about the headlines that tarted this thing up into something more provocative... which, I think, might be the topic of next week's column.

Grin, I suspect the first anonymous was making fun of Kevin S's posts. I'm waiting for Kev to blame Obama for the rates of STD's among MPS students. Kev?

Anonymous said...

What data do the abstinence believers cite to support their position?

Would it not be wise to simply conclude that we tried the abstinence way with no measurable results or reductions in teen pregnancies and STD's, the funding stops and we will try another method.

We fund instead "If you can't say no, then say yes wisely!"

Those who wish to "just say no" can buckle their teens chastity belts... what the heck fund those too and see if it helps.

John Foust said...

I thought the good old quote went "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."

Smart Spanish Blogs said...

So good post
and I hope to visit my Blog STD Symptoms and see Pelvic Inflammatory
thanks again Admin