Abstinence-Only Debate Heating Up

By Darcia Harris Bowman — February 11, 2004 7 min read
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President Bush’s proposal to almost double the amount of money the federal government spends on abstinence education to $273 million in fiscal 2005 has raised the stakes in the battle over what to teach children and adolescents about sex.

Federal funding for abstinence programs has increased steadily since 1996, when the Republican-controlled Congress passed—and President Clinton signed—a sweeping welfare-reform bill that authorized $250 million to states over a five-year period for such programs aimed at teenagers and unmarried adults.

This fiscal year, total federal aid for such programs is expected to reach $140 million.

“We will double federal funding for abstinence programs, so schools can teach this fact of life: Abstinence for young people is the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases,” President Bush said in his Jan. 20 State of the Union speech. “Decisions children now make can affect their health and character for the rest of their lives. All of us— parents and schools and government—must work together to counter the negative influence of the culture and to send the right messages to our children.”

The president’s proposal for a substantial increase, included with the release of the Bush administration’s 2005 budget proposal last week, drew quick reaction from both sides of the sex education divide.

The news was a boost for those who believe students should be taught a single rule of thumb: no sex outside marriage.

“I am pleased that President Bush has unashamedly endorsed abstinence education and programs as the single best way to prevent our children from paying the awful price that sexually transmitted diseases extract from those who are sexually active outside the bounds of marriage,” James C. Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, an advocacy group based in Colorado Springs, Colo., said in a statement following the president’s remarks.

Proponents of “comprehensive sex education,” on the other hand, accuse Mr. Bush of playing politics with the health of young people.

“The president’s commitment to abstinence-only-until- marriage education ignores what the science tells us works,” said Tamara Kreinin, the president and chief executive officer of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. SIECUS, based in New York City, argues for sex education curricula that include both promotion of abstinence and information about contraception.

“By putting this proposal in the State of the Union,” Ms. Kreinen said, “the president is simply pandering to a small but vocal minority. Comprehensive sex education is the middle ground.”

Public Opinion

Only a small percentage of Americans believe abstinence-only programs are the best form of sex education for young people, according to a survey released last month.

The nationally representative poll of 1,759 American adults, including 1,001 parents, found that just 15 percent believed that schools should teach only about abstinence from sexual intercourse and should not provide information about contraception.

Close to half the respondents, 46 percent, agreed that because some teenagers do have sex, schools should teach “abstinence plus” courses that combine a promotion of abstinence with instruction on contraception, according to the survey, which was sponsored by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Princeton, N.J.-based Princeton Survey Research Associates conducted the survey last fall.

Thirty-six percent of those polled said that abstinence was not the most important topic to teach, and that sex education in schools should focus on teaching teenagers how to make responsible decisions about sexual activity.

Despite those findings, a parallel survey of a nationally representative sample of 303 middle, junior, and high school principals showed that 30 percent of the middle and high schools where sex education was taught used abstinence-only curricula.

That more schools may be joining that group in the future with the federal government’s help is troubling to those who believe that teaching abstinence alone is not enough.

“It’s not a small matter that more and more teens will not have the comprehensive information that could literally save their lives,” said Elizabeth A. Toledo, the vice president for communications for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York City.

Others disagree.

The Coalition for Adolescent Sexual Health, an ad hoc partnership of pro-family groups that includes Focus on the Family, released the results of a nationwide survey of 1,004 parents last month that showed a majority support abstinence education and oppose programs that include teaching about contraception.

‘Wholesome Approach’

Tom K. Williams said he has watched skepticism about abstinence-only education in his community all but evaporate over the course of a three-year, $1.4 million federally financed program he has coordinated for the 8,300-student Fayetteville public schools and 15 other Arkansas districts.

The program—which includes a 10-day curriculum, peer counseling, extracurricular activities, and a summer session— reaches students in 14 middle schools, 10 junior high schools, and 17 high schools.

Mr. Williams, who is in the midst of reapplying for continued funding from the federal government, said that he has been able to show slight positive gains in changing students’ behaviors and attitudes about abstinence, and that he has all 16 district superintendents backing his efforts.

“I believe it’s just a wholesome approach,” he said. “I haven’t met too many people who wish their children would get pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted disease. Abstinence is the only 100 percent sure way to avoid all that.”

Fayetteville High School juniors Elizabeth M. Mashie and Erin J. Berger agree. The two serve as peer coordinators for the abstinence program, and both profess to live by its rules. That means “no sexual activity” outside marriage, according to the federal guidelines.

“We try to promote abstinence to our peers, and we try to promote it especially to the younger kids who really look up to us,” Ms. Mashie said.

Still, the teens admitted their quest can be difficult at times.

“I definitely know a lot of people who are or have been sexually active,” Ms. Berger said. “It was hard for me at first to talk to my friends, but now everybody knows that I don’t have sex, I don’t drink, and I don’t do drugs, and they don’t talk about what they do around me anymore.”

The program’s federal funding prohibits the schools from teaching students how to use contraception or where to get it. When asked whether she worries that withholding information about safe sex could endanger students who do become sexually active, Ms. Berger said she does her best to give her friends informational material about condoms she obtains outside of school.

“But I know and they know that the best way to protect yourself is through abstinence,” she said.

Effectiveness Questioned

That protection is only 100 percent if a young person understands “abstinence” to mean avoiding a broad range of sexual activities, argues Ms. Kreinin of SIECUS.

Abstinence-only education “simply isn’t realistic for a pluralistic society,” she said. “Young people all over the country are being told [by abstinence-only educators] that condoms don’t work, so they’re not using them.

“That doesn’t mean they’re not having sex,” she added, “and we know many kids are having more anal and oral sex.”

The abstinence-only message does appear to be lost on some students, judging from an evaluation released last month of an abstinence program called Minnesota Education Now and Babies Later, administered by the state health department and financed in part by the federal government.

In the evaluation, 316 students who were taught the curriculum in 2001 completed pre- and post-curriculum questionnaires. The study compared the responses on those two questionnaires. Among the findings:

  • Forty-one percent of students said on the post-curriculum survey that they would tell a girlfriend or boyfriend “no sex,” compared with 54 percent of respondents to the pre-curriculum survey.
  • Fifty-six percent on the second survey said they would avoid risky situations such as drinking or going into a bedroom, compared with 65 percent on the earlier questionnaire.
  • Sixty-five percent who had completed the curriculum reported they would say “no” to sex, compared with 76 percent beforehand.

And the percentage of students who reported having sex doubled, from 6 percent to 12 percent, according to the evaluation, which was requested by the state and conducted by an outside data-analysis company.

Even so, supporters of abstinence-only education argue that the positive effects of their approach will grow with time—and continued financial support.

“I think the president’s remarks in his State of the Union sends a message to the kids that we need to keep this going,” said Mr. Williams, the coordinator of the Fayetteville abstinence program.


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