Don't Mess Around in Texas

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
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Half the states had withdrawn from Title V by the time it ended in June."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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