BY THE TIME funding for five years of abstinence-only sex education
is up for congressional reconsideration next year, U.S. taxpayers will have
handed over about a half-billion dollars for it in federal and state money.
Too bad we're just now studying whether such a narrow approach actually
works to lower the teen pregnancy rate or inspire kids to postpone having
Then again, when House and Senate Republicans tacked on an abstinence-only
sex-ed package to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, their primary objective had
little to do with proven methods or even what the majority of American parents
According to a congressional staff report discovered and quoted by the
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, the goal was
to ignore reality and bankroll a one-size-fits-all dream of the religious
Just say no to sex, kids.
"Regardless of how one feels about the standard of no sex outside marriage . . . the intent of Congress was clear," said the staff report. "This standard
was intended to put Congress on the side of social tradition -- never mind
that some observers now think the tradition outdated -- that sex should be
confined to married couples."
Never mind either that more than half of teenagers engage in sex by the
time they are in high school. Never mind that, while the teen birth rate has
dropped to a 20-year low, we still lead the developed world in unplanned teen
pregancy, abortion and in teen sexually transmitted diseases (STD).
Never mind that 1 of 4 sexually active adolescents has an STD. Never mind
that almost half of new HIV cases occur in people under age 25. Never mind
that the National Institutes for Health calls abstinence-only sex education an
"obstacle to reducing the risky behaviors among teens" or that the National
Academy of Science says that mega-funding for such a program is "poor fiscal
and public health policy."
At least next year, when welfare reform and abstinence-only sex education
must win reapproval from Congress, differing voices will be raised. Along with
findings from a federally funded study that finally is in progress, a host of
experts on the subject of teenage sexuality will weigh in.
Among them is research scientist Douglas Kirby of the National Campaign to
Prevent Teen Pregnancy (www.teenpregnancy.org/053001). In a new report that
was four years in the making, Kirby shares the positive news of his review of
250 teenage sex education programs in the United States.
The best news: Eight existing programs significantly reduce teen pregnancy
and the spread of STDs, even for at-risk kids. Five are strictly comprehensive
sex education (including abstinence as an option), two are community service
programs with group discussions, and one is a combination of sex ed, health
care and supportive activities.
Equally helpful: Kirby's analysis revealed that giving kids information
about condoms or other birth control -- indeed telling them where to get
contraception -- did not cause them to have sex earlier or increase the
As for the efficacy of abstience-only programs, only three programs met the
scientific research criteria necessary for review. So far, says Kirby's report, "the jury is still out" but the early evidence "is not encouraging."
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle