It’s not uncommon for the U.S. government to legislate morality. In recent years, higher profile examples have included attempts to ban gay marriage and stop embryonic stem cell research. While less visible, the federal government’s 12-year assault on comprehensive sex education is no exception.

Under the guise of promoting a common-sense sexual health program, the federal government has peddled its abstinence-only education package to the states, encouraging them to deny students a full education in exchange for federal funding. And for more than a decade, Michigan has taken the bait and held on tight — even as other states have dropped the program in droves, rightfully acknowledging that abstinence-only sex education is not only ineffective but also counterproductive.

In 1996, the federal government instituted the State Abstinence Education Program, an initiative designed to incentivize abstinence-only education in the states. By marketing its program as a community-based initiative to combat risky sexual behaviors and teenage pregnancy through education, it aroused strong support. Nearly all of the states were quick to put up their end of the matching funds, and soon, 49 of the 50 states traded in the nuances of contraception and personal choice for one dangerously overly-simplified message: Don’t do it.

Proponents of this program in Michigan are particularly fond of opening their fairy tale with these details. They mention the program’s mission, its initial popularity and then start in on the numbers — 108 and 75, in particular. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, those were the teen pregnancy rates (per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 in Michigan) in 1992 and 2000, respectively. It’s hard to deny that that 30.6-percent drop in the state’s teen pregnancy rate looks good for the federal State Abstinence Education Program and its Michigan partner, the Michigan Abstinence Partnership, which started in 1993.

Those numbers are hard to argue with — that is, until one looks at the rest of the report. Perhaps most telling is the comparison between Michigan and California, the one state that rejected federal abstinence education funding from the beginning. Michigan may have seen its teen pregnancy rate drop from 108 to 75 per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19, but during that same period, California’s rate dropped from 157 to 96. Further, a comprehensive look at the Guttmacher Institute’s report shows that, in fact, every state saw a drop in teen pregnancy from 1992 to 2000. Maybe Michigan has been a little too quick to congratulate itself after all.

Another statistic the state has chosen to ignore is the plummeting number of states that still participate in this federal program. While Michigan was in good company when it first agreed to match the government’s funding for a narrow abstinence-only curriculum, that doesn’t negate the fact that participation is dropping quickly these days. In April, there were 33 participating states. Just six months later, only 23 remain.

But if abstinence-only education has been such a success over the past decade as states like Michigan claim, then why are all of these states suddenly dropping the initiative? To put it simply, it doesn’t work. In April 2007, a group commissioned by the U.S. Congress to study the State Abstinence Education Program released a report stating that middle school students in abstinence-only education programs were just as likely to have sex in their teenage years. When even the institution responsible for a program criticizes it, it’s time to come to terms with the truth.

With stated intentions to “(teach) that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is expected standard of human sexual activity,” among other things, it should have been clear from the beginning that the government had more than preventing teen pregnancy in mind when it penned this section of the Social Security Act. Especially for those who have used textbooks with chapters ripped out (to protect students from the dangers of contraception, apparently), this realization is tardy but hopefully not too late.

While my hope is that Congress will someday acknowledge the findings of its own study and eliminate the State Abstinence Education Program, it’s a more pressing issue that Michigan hasn’t caught on yet. The state must reject federal funding for abstinence-only education and instead focus on developing a comprehensive sex education program to give Michigan’s students a better understanding of sexuality and the choices available to them. And for the sake of being truly comprehensive, those choices should include abstinence — as long as its not presented as the only choice.

Emmarie Huetteman is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at huetteme@umich.edu.

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