Abstaining from Ignorance

Obama is right to cut funding for abstinence-only sex education

As part of his $17 billion in proposed cuts to the federal budget, Barack Obama has called for the elimination of two programs relating to one of the Bush administration’s more unfortunate social policies: abstinence-only sex education. Obama proposes replacing the two programs, each costing $100 million, with $110 million for comprehensive sex education, for a net savings of $90 million. While the savings involved are small, the policy change is commendable. Abstinence-only sex education programs have been repeatedly shown to be ineffective, misleading, and even bigoted, while comprehensive programs have seen widespread success.

Study after study has shown abstinence-only programs have almost no impact on teens’ sexual behavior. One, commissioned by Congress and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research over the course of nine years, found that students receiving abstinence-only education had sex no later than those who did not. The number of sexual partners and use of contraception did not differ between the groups either. Another study, from Johns Hopkins, found that students who take virginity pledges—a key part of many abstinence-only curricula—were no less likely to have premarital sex than those who do not. More frighteningly, the Johns Hopkins study also found that students taking such pledges were significantly less likely to use condoms or other forms of birth control. The science, then, is clear. Abstinence-only education is useless at best and counterproductive at worst.

What’s more, abstinence-only programs tend to spread misinformation and sexist stereotypes. According to a report prepared by the House Committee on Government Reform, abstinence-only curricula have claimed that HIV can be spread through tears, that abortion causes sterility, and that condoms fail to stop HIV transmission in 31 percent of cases. None of these claims, of course, is true. The report goes on to mention multiple instances of sexist content in abstinence-only programs, including one class that told students, “Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.”

Even in public schools, many abstinence-only programs are run by religious organizations. For example, the federal government gave the Catholic Diocese of Orlando an $800,000 grant to teach abstinence. This intermingling of church and state would be inappropriate enough even if it did not translate to religiously biased teaching. But, in many cases, the House report found it did just that, as the program promoted religious dogma such as the belief that life begins at conception, or that fetuses are “thinking persons”, as scientific fact. While privately funded religious abstinence-only programs are acceptable, using religious curricula in public schools violates the separation of church and state and alienates students who hold a different, or no, faith.

There is a better way. Studies have shown that comprehensive sex education, including discussion of condoms and other contraceptives, is an effective way of preventing teen pregnancy. In countries with more liberal attitudes about teen sexuality and sex education—including most of Western Europe and especially Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands—rates of teen pregnancy, STD transmissions, and abortion are consistently low. While Obama’s budget shuffle will not suddenly turn the tide, it is a move in the right direction. Rather than obfuscating sexual activity as abstinence-only programs do, comprehensive sex education programs like the new one Obama is creating respect teens’ individual agency and freedom and give them the information they need to make good choices sexually.