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Abstinence 1, S-Chip 0

by Amanda Robb

Democratic leaders are right to contest President Bush's veto of their bill to expand the State Children's Health Insurance program. But sadly, their "bipartisan compromise" will leave millions of young Americans vulnerable to sickness and suffering of the most preventable kind.

To entice Republicans to support the bill, the House of Representatives agreed to increase money for abstinence-only sex education by $28 million, to a total of about $200 million a year. Abstinence-only courses, the only form of federally financed sex ed, teach that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to cause psychological and physical harm.

If that were true, our health care system would be not only broken, but besieged. A 2002 survey found that 93 percent of American adults had had premarital sex by the age of 30.

In addition to provoking shame about a nearly universal activity, abstinence-only sex education is ineffective and dangerous. Last April, a 10-year study found that students who took abstinence-only courses were no more likely to abstain from sex than other students. Previous studies revealed that abstinence-only students avoid using contraception.

Programs in public schools teach patently false information like "the chances of getting pregnant with a condom are one out of six" and H.I.V. "may be in your body for a long time (from a few months to as long as 10 years or more) before it can be detected."

The results are tragic. The United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world (about the same as Ukraine's), and the highest abortion rate in the Western world. Sexually transmitted infections like syphilis and gonorrhea are on the rise for the first time since the 1980s, and chlamydia is being diagnosed twice as often as it was a decade ago.

Among Americans living in poverty - those who might see the $4 price of a three-pack of condoms as the take-home pay for an hour of work at minimum wage - the unintended pregnancy rate has increased 30 percent since 1994.

Our teenage pregnancy and abortion rates have declined during the last decade, but research suggests this is mainly because of increased use of condoms, something young people must learn about outside of school.

By dropping the financing for abstinence-only sex ed, Congress could save enough money to insure 150,000 children a year. And it would also demonstrate much needed resolve to protect all aspects of children's health.

Amanda Robb is at work on a book about the abstinence movement.

© 2007 The New York Times Company

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