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Abstinence pledges still a good idea

DALLAS (BP)–Before 2008 ended, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin welcomed her first grandchild into the world. Her daughter Bristol and fiancé Levi Johnston named their baby Tripp. Bristol, age 18, will earn her final high school credits this semester. Levi will finish online while working as an electrical apprentice in the North Slope. The couple plans to marry later this year. These young people face a tough road, made somewhat smoother with the help of Bristol’s supportive family, which Gov. Palin says is “over the moon with the arrival of this healthy, beautiful baby.”

The news of the pregnancy, of course, was “shocking,” met with “some fear and a bit of despair,” Palin said in a press statement from the governor’s office. The statement included a window into Sarah Palin’s faith: “Isn’t it just like God to turn those circumstances into such an amazing, joyful blessing when you ask Him to help you through?”

Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was disclosed just days after her mother was chosen as John McCain’s running mate, and critics of abstinence education pounced on the news. If Christian parents, and the nation’s schools, spent more time teaching contraception, critics said, Bristol wouldn’t be in this pickle. Advocates for comprehensive sex education, already on a mission to convince states to reject federal abstinence funding, now had more ammunition.

Today, they’re thrilled as they look forward to a more liberal Congress that will be inclined to cut funding for abstinence-only education. And they plan on reminding President-elect Obama of his campaign pledge to Planned Parenthood to eliminate abstinence programs, which total about $176 million in federal funding. (For a school district to access abstinence funding, its curriculum must emphasize that abstinence is the “expected standard for all school-age children” and that a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.”)

These folks also are applauding a study from Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Its conclusion: Virginity pledges don’t work. The Washington Post summarized the report as saying: “Teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence, and are about 10 percent less likely to use birth control.”

(However, as Baptist Press reported, “The study only compared the behavior of strongly religious teenagers to other strongly religious teenagers and made no comparison of this group to teenagers with little or no religious influence in their lives.)

The anti-abstinence-ed lobby will employ this study to help them make the case that requiring abstinence-only education is toxic to our kids, and that promises to abstain from sex until marriage actually lead to more pregnancies.

But is this the logical conclusion from this study? Or is it, as in the case of Bristol Palin, who now says her situation “isn’t ideal,” a story about teens who plan to behave, and mess up?

The Johns Hopkins study is one of many surveys studying the dramatic drop in the teen pregnancy rate over the past 15 years. In 1996, the Clinton administration and Congress introduced federal funding for abstinence education as part of the Welfare Reform Act. President Bush and Congress increased funding and strengthened the requirements.

Sex educators argue over whether programs that stress pure abstinence or abstinence-plus-contraception are most effective. A study by the Heritage Foundation found that, on average, abstinence-plus curricula devoted “only 4.7 percent of their page content to the topic of abstinence and zero percent to healthy relationships and marriage.” The primary focus of these programs was “on encouraging young people to use contraception.”

One common principle has risen from all this research: The best programs focus on character development and positive activities aimed at fostering self-respect and upholding marriage. A virginity pledge can be part of this. It’s a promise. The potential to fail is always present. We all make News Year’s resolutions we don’t keep. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them.
Penna Dexter is a conservative activist and frequent panelist on “Point of View” syndicated radio program. Her weekly commentaries air on the Bott and Moody Radio Networks. She also serves as a consultant for KMA Direct Communications in Plano, Texas.

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  • Penna Dexter