Saving our young people from the dangers of abstinence

by Jay Johansen

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Abstinence education programs in America are under attack.

In November, 2004, Congressman Henry Waxman's office published a report accusing abstinence education programs of being filled with "false, misleading, or distorted information". "I don't think we ought to lie to our children about science," he told reporters.

Numerous organizations that oppose abstinence education, such as Planned Parenthood and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), promptly jumped on the bandwagon with press releases and appearances on news and commentary programs seconding Waxman's report.

Some of the things Waxman's staff found in these programs do indeed appear to be errors. He blasts one program for saying that a baby gets 24 chromosomes from each parent, when in fact the correct number is 23 from each. An error, of course, but it is not entirely clear why such a mistake would cause so much excitement.

He quotes another program as saying that half of homosexual teenagers have AIDS. The number appears to be high, and it is not clear what the source of this claimed fact was as there have not been any studies specifically on teenage homosexuals. (A study in San Francisco did find over 50% of homosexuals in that city had AIDS, but this was one city and not limited to teenagers.)

But most of the claimed errors are debatable. Medical research is full of studies with inconsistent results. Most of Waxman's claims of error were that a curriculum used statistics from one study while Waxman found another study that got different statistics. For example, Waxman attacks one curriculum for saying that condoms are not effective in preventing pregnancy because women who rely on condoms become pregnant within a year 30% of the time. After condemning this program for teaching our children such lies, he presents the core of his rebuttal: a government study that found that condoms fail only 15% of the time. As a major cause of condom failure is sloppiness in how they are used, it is not surprising if different studies give a fairly broad range of results: it will all depend on how careful the test subjects are, how frequently they have sex, and a host of other factors. And in any case the point was presumably that teens who rely on condoms to prevent pregnancy are taking a big risk. It is not at all clear that the accuracy of this statement is altered if the risk is "only" 15% and not 30%. In an article supporting Waxman, Planned Parenthood quotes another study saying that the failure rate for condoms is only 2-3% "when used correctly and consistently". This statement may well be true, but almost no one actually uses condoms "correctly and consistently". It's like saying that you needn't worry about your teenager driving a car because automobiles almost never collide -- as long as all the cars on the road are in good repair, the weather is perfect, and all drivers are sober, attentive, and following all traffic regulations.

Some of Waxman's charges bring his own scientific credibility into question. He attacks a statement that abortion can cause sterility, citing "a standard obstetrics textbook that says fertility is not affected by elective abortion". Is he serious? Surely one does not have to be a medical expert to know that all surgical procedures involve risk, and that if you are operating on a woman's reproductive organs there will surely be the danger of damage to her future reproduction. Medical professionals debate just how great the risk is. Pro-abortion doctors cite studies saying the risk is less than 5%; anti-abortion doctors cite studies showing sterility rates as high as 50%. But I have never heard a serious doctor say that there is no risk of sterility from abortion. I have never heard a serious doctor say that there is no risk of complications from taking an aspirin.

Finally, Waxman attacked several abstinence programs for "presenting gender stereotypes as scientific fact". Among the examples he gave were: One curriculum said that men tend to resent "too much ... suggestions and assistance" from women, and another that said that women with children "need financial support". Apparently while Fundamentalist American men complain about being nagged and badgered by their wives or girlfriends, in parts of the world not burdened by silly gender stereotypes men just love such behavior and consider it helpful in providing motivation to overcome their faults. And of course it is pure right-wing propaganda to suggest that a 14-yeard-old girl with a newborn baby is not perfectly capable of supporting herself and her child totally independently.

If these are the sort of errors that Waxman was able to find, it is surely astounding that he was unable to find anything to object to in 2 of the 13 programs his office studied.

One is left wondering exactly why Waxman and these other organizations are attacking programs that simply encourage young people to not be promiscuous. Who could find fault with such a message?

Advocates of contraception education argue that if we tell kids to avoid sex rather than teaching them how to use condoms, they are going to have sex anyway, and then they will fail to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies or sexually-transmitted diseases. An article in Z-Mag on Waxman's report spoke of the terrible consequences of abstinence education: They cited an example of an abstinence speaker who came to a school and talked about the ineffectiveness of condoms. And then, the article states ominously, "A couple of months later the first girl got pregnant. The second girl got pregnant a few weeks later ..." Yes, I'm sure no one in that school ever got pregnant until someone told them that the best way to avoid pregnancy is to avoid having sex.

A hint to another possible motivation is found in that same Z-Mag article: They quote a teacher who opposed abstinence ed as saying, "The abstinence people are so well-funded that they can travel all over the state. We have nothing to counter the kind of federal money that is pouring in." They go on to say, "Since 1998, more than $1 billion has been spent on abstinence only programs." That number is correct, but in that same time period, the federal government has spent $12 billion on programs that teach contraception and abortion.

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Posted 13 Feb 2005
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