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Don't Mess Around in Texas

Suzanne Ehlers

When I graduated from high school in San Antonio, Texas, I can remember at least two dozen girls (out of a class of 600) pregnant or already with babies. It may seem astonishing now, but it was fairly normal in 1991: so normal, in fact, that our high school had responded with an academic track geared toward expectant and young mothers.

Based on this history, I wasn't totally shocked to learn that President Bush's abstinence-only program led to a 57 percent rise in student pregnancy in the Lone Star state.

What was truly shocking were the recent headlines that some Texas schools are abandoning abstinence-only education! No kidding, guys, what tipped you off that it wasn't working?

Abstinence-only programs were big in Texas. The state received more program funding than any other state in the nation. But the biggest experiment of this idea demonstrated the biggest failures. Classic Texas. What can we learn from this?

First, let's be real. Kids are doing it, and they're better off if we admit it and inform them properly. Even though I was in a particularly zealous phase of "I'm waiting until I'm married," my parents suspected otherwise and connected me to information and resources. "Just in case, be safe" was my Catholic mom's mantra.

But in Texas, under these programs, lessons on reproductive physiology were skipped, and information about condoms and contraception was suppressed, but nothing improved. A situation that was never good to begin with got 57 percent worse because adults wouldn't admit the obvious: many young people have sex.

Second, we must acknowledge that having a baby is extremely tough for young people. It's hard on them, hard on their families, and hard for the community as a whole.

Third, let's admit this approach is a failure. Our policies, decided by ideologues in Washington, D.C., have done a terrible disservice to the young people of Texas.

Fortunately, the Austin American-Statesman reported that "The abstinence-only approach to sex education, which has cost U.S. taxpayers at least $1.3 billion since 1996, has fallen out of favor in many parts of the country. Half the states had withdrawn from Title V by the time it ended in June." Despite this evidence, a Senate subcommittee voted this week to restore $50 million in funding for abstinence-only education. It comes as no surprise that the measure was sponsored by Orrin Hatch, the conservative Senator from Utah.

It would be one thing if our political ping-pong were just screwing up our own country, but the United States has exported these same failed ideas to many sub-Saharan African countries. My organization, Population Action International, produced a documentary in 2007 called "Abstaining from Reality" that looked at the damage done by the Bush administration's abstinence-only HIV-prevention programs. In each interview, people told us how deeply their communities had been harmed by policies decided by people halfway across the world. In Africa, as in Texas, it was painfully obvious that the best approach to avoiding devastating infections and unintended pregnancies is to have the ability to make informed choices and have access to appropriate supplies.

If the rest of the Senate opens its eyes a little bit, the United States will have a tremendous opportunity to regain some of the ground lost during the abstinence-only years. The Obama administration has eased some of the restrictions on international reproductive health programming and has talked about how to make the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief more effective. The international aid and development community is pushing for an end to these programs, and to listen to the people on the ground we are working to help.

The solution to this problem stands out like a 16-year-old girl in her third trimester. We can help people in the South make better decisions about their bodies, lives, and their families--be that in Africa or Texas. All we need is a large dose of reality and small dose of leadership.

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