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Do the math on abstinence education

DALLAS (BP)–Just in time for a Capitol Hill battle over abstinence education funding, a curious report was released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in April.

Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., a Washington D.C. think tank, conducted the study on just four of the nation’s more than 700 abstinence education programs and concluded these curricula had little impact on teen sexual activity. The Washington Post headline — “Study Casts Doubt on Abstinence-Only Programs” — was one of many that broadened the report’s message to imply that abstinence-only sex ed is not working. (This study is different from a study released by HHS June 12 showing that so-called comprehensive sex-ed doesn’t work and contains medical inaccuracies.)

The abstinence study followed children who were presented with an abstinence program at ages nine to 11. These kids had no other abstinence education until they were evaluated four to six years later. At that time, some of them were having sex.

This ridiculous study contradicts 15 evaluations documenting the effectiveness of abstinence education programs across the country. But it provided ammunition for members of Congress determined not to reauthorize the Title V abstinence education program, which expires June 30. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over Title V, said the program has not proven to be effective. Really?

Title V provides $50 million per year for sex-ed programs on the state level that teach abstinence is the best way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. To receive Title V funds, states must adhere to certain requirements, including teaching that sex within marriage is “the expected standard of sexual activity.”

Title V is one of three abstinence-funding programs, and its language affects the others. President Bush has asked Congress to appropriate $191 million for all three programs for fiscal year 2008, an increase of $28 million from FY 2007 funding levels.

By contrast, the government funnels more than a quarter of a billion dollars — that’s billion with a “B” — each year to groups like Planned Parenthood for “comprehensive” sex-ed. The philosophy driving these programs is the model promoted by SIECUS, the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States. These groups don’t deny the obvious abstinence message: no sex, no pregnancy, no STD. But they assume some students simply cannot, or will not, abstain from premarital sex. So birth control and “safer sex” are major components of the curriculum. Comprehensive sex educators define abstinence as anything short of intercourse, preserving an emphasis on condoms to provide protection from the STDs that can result from such behavior.

How public schools do sex-ed is up for grabs; whether or not they do it is no longer controversial. Perhaps it should be, because the record has been mixed.

Sex-education courses were initially introduced in certain U.S. public schools in the 1940s to curb sexually transmitted diseases and reduce teen pregnancies. The federal government began providing some support for sex-ed programs in the 80s, with Planned Parenthood and SIECUS driving the content.

The stakes got higher as HIV/AIDS reared its ugly head. By the 1990s, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and STDs had mushroomed, along with federal welfare outlays. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act contained $50 million for abstinence.

Then, in 2000, candidate George W. Bush contended abstinence education was woefully underfunded. As president, he said, he’d spend as much on abstinence as on teen family planning. The country has made tremendous progress toward reaching that goal.

President Bush states clearly that the message to young people should be: “Save sex until marriage.” The administration’s abstinence funding message emphasizes not only eliminating the physical risk and reducing the economic costs to society, but also the negative effects sexual activity has on the mental and emotional health of young people.

This is key because the abstinence message in comprehensive sex education is not values-based. To get government funds, public school abstinence programs, by law, cannot contain religious content. But they can and do emphasize love, the proper role of intimacy, commitment and especially marriage. A Zogby poll released in May shows an overwhelming majority (83 percent) of parents want this taught to their children. By a 3 to 1 margin, parents want more funding given to abstinence education than to comprehensive sex ed. And 2 out of 3 parents think the “wait to have sex” message gets lost when contraception is demonstrated and encouraged.

Our leaders should not ignore the successes and the common sense surrounding abstinence education. Not too many years ago, the youth culture’s mantra was, “If it feels good, do it.” Today more teenagers are saying, “Let’s not.” There are strong indications that most of today’s teenagers reject the free sex ethos of their parents’ generation. On behalf of the culture, let the adults in Congress do the same.
Penna Dexter is a board of trustee member with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a conservative activist and an announcer on the syndicated radio program “Life on the Line” (information available at www.lifeontheline.com). She currently serves as a consultant for KMA Direct Communications in Plano, Texas, and as a co-host of “Jerry Johnson Live,” a production of Criswell Communications. She formerly was a co-host of Marlin Maddoux’s “Point of View” syndicated radio program.

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  • Penna Dexter