President Bush’s new budget includes significant cuts in a number of important areas, including funds to support education and general science research. One “education” program, however, has not only managed to dodge budget cuts but will actually emerge this year with three times the funding it received in 2001. Unfortunately, this fiscal boost is headed toward a troubling program: abstinence-only sex education.
This funding increase is upsetting for two reasons. First, abstinence-only programs are a near-sighted, unproven and possibly harmful strategy for teaching sex education. Second, abstinence-only provides increased government resources for a program with strong ties to religious groups.
Abstinence-only programs are not troubling for the “abstinence” component; rather, it is the “only” that raises problems. Under federal law, in order for a sex education program to qualify for federal abstinence-only funds it must not discuss any form of contraception except to examine how contraception fails. Students who receive abstinence-only education only learn about the statistically miniscule instances in which, for example, a condom fails to prevent pregnancy, and would emerge with a grossly distorted notion of the costs and benefits of contraception.
This approach is not only irresponsibly biased, but possibly counterproductive. Research appears to indicate that abstinence-only sex education fails both to significantly delay sex and to decrease teen pregnancy. Furthermore, teens who take an abstinence-only approach are significantly less likely to utilize contraception when they do have sex — which, for students who pledge abstinence, occurs before marriage 88 percent of the time.
So if abstinence-only education is both unreasonably biased and unable to promote safer sexual behavior, why is it receiving such a boost from the Bush administration? Not surprisingly, abstinence-only education’s most vocal supporters are social and religious conservatives, whose faith in the effectiveness of the abstinence-only approach remains unwavering in the face of much evidence to the contrary.
But the beliefs of a particular group are not the real problem with abstinence-only sex education. Social conservatives have as much a right to believe in abstinence-only education as its critics have to denounce it, and neither belief should be suppressed. The trouble emerges when a set of beliefs unsupported by evidence is endorsed by the government, and as a result, appears in public schools under the guise of a legitimate sex education curriculum. The administration’s sole focus in prescribing sex education programs should be to evaluate which approach generates the best and most empirically reliable decreases in risky sexual behavior, and should in no way be influenced by political concerns.
Interestingly, abstinence can be integrated into sex education easily and responsibly using the so called “abstinence-plus” approach, which encourages abstinence while also teaching about contraception. This approach is not only more even-handed — addressing the needs and lifestyles of a broader range of students — but is also supported by evidence. However, this approach would involve conceding that pre-marital teen sex occurs, which social conservatives and the Bush administration appear to find tantamount to endorsing teen sexual behavior.
This mind set is both outdated and irresponsible, and has resulted in funding boosts for abstinence-only programs that are unlikely to curb risky sexual behavior. At a time when the consequences of being unaware of contraceptive and protective options are as high as they have ever been, the administration’s catering to the unsound beliefs of religious and social conservatives is shockingly irresponsible.