Abstinence Education: Separating fact from philosophy

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Monday, July 18, 2005

Abstinence Education: Separating fact from philosophy

On July 5th the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its official opposition to abstinence education despite its effectiveness in preventing teen pregnancies. The new AAP policy reverses a previous statement, adopted in 1998, saying "abstinence counseling is an important role for all pediatricians.'' The AAP now says "teenagers should instead be taught about birth control and given access to the morning after pill" and has issued new guidelines to that effect.

Dr. Jonathan Klein, chairman of the AAP committee that wrote the new guidelines, said "Even though there is great enthusiasm in some circles for abstinence-only interventions, the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy."

These sorts of statements are rooted in philosophical commitments and not fact and leave the public confused and uncertain about the proper approach to sex education. First they inaccurately imply that "abstinence-only" education "blindly refuses to teach contraception" in the words of NY Times columnist, Nicholas Kristoff and therefore naively ignore the real possibility of teen sexual activity.

Second, Dr. Klein's statement indicates that "abstinence-only" education has been faithfully tried but alas has been found wanting. The AAP is essentially saying that it is time to take sex education back from those well-intended but naive do "do-gooders" and return it to the realm of science where it belongs and thus abandon those inane and archaic moral associations with sex education.

The fact is there is no such thing as "abstinence-only" education. Abstinence-centered education most certainly does emphasize pre-marital abstinence as the most effective means of protection against STDs and unplanned pregnancies. (One might assume that a medical Doctor would know that not actually having sex is "the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy.") Abstinence-centered education does teach kids about contraception quite thoroughly however, what irritates the proponents of what could better be called "contraception-only" education is that it teaches the scientific facts about the risks of reliance upon contraceptive methods. Contrary to these public statements abstinence-centered education does not exclude factual information about contraception.

Upon examining the curriculum in use today, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation points out that "True abstinence curricula devote, on average, 71 percent of their page content to abstinence. In contrast, comprehensive or so-called 'Safe-sex' curricula, on average, allocate only 4.7 percent of their content to abstinence; the overwhelming focus is on encouraging teens to use contraception... The principal message that pervades comprehensive sex education curricula, through repeated example, is that it is okay for teens to have sex as long as they use contraception."

Research overwhelmingly indicates that this kind of messaging does encourage teen sexual behavior. In 1986 Planned Parenthood commissioned a poll to determine how "comprehensive" sex education affected behavior. Much to the agency's dismay, the study showed that kids exposed to such a program had a 47% higher rate of sexual activity than those who received no sex education at all!

Contrary to the AAP's statement that "the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions," a 1996 study on Project Reality's use of Choosing the Best curriculum indicated a 54% decrease in sexual activity after teens were exposed to the abstinence curriculum. A Texas A&M study conducted in 2003 found that, "When compared with the general teen population, teens who participate in abstinence education programs have significantly lower sexual activity rates." An August 2002 study by Northwestern University Medical School researcher John S. Lyons, Ph.D., discovered that "youth have a clearer understanding of abstinence and of the health consequences of engaging in or refraining from sexual activity after participating in an abstinence-only education program." According to Robert Rector, "There are currently ten evaluations showing that abstinence education is effective in reducing teen sexual activity. Half of these evaluations have been published in peer-reviewed journals."

A study released on June 14 of this year by the US Department of Health and Human Services reveals once again that abstinence education works. According to the interim report, teens who participated in abstinence programs had an increased awareness of the potential consequences of sexual activity before marriage, thought more highly of abstinent behaviors, and had less favorable opinions about sexual activity before marriage than did students who were not in abstinence programs.

From 1971 to 1986 the government spent $2 billion of taxpayer's money on "safe-sex" education. During this same period, the number of girls who became pregnant while using contraceptives rose 266%. There was also a 107% increase in those who had abortions and a 93% increase to those who contracted STDs.

Ultimately the conflict over sex education is about differing worldviews and moral perspectives. Those who advocate "safe-sex," "comprehensive" or "abstinence-plus" education have long ago abandoned the approach that presents kids with an ideal to aim for and a revelation of the facts if you don't. All comprehensive sex-ed proponents can offer kids are efforts that seek to mitigate or minimize the consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage. Therein lies the fallacy; you simply can't violate the natural design of human sexuality and mitigate every natural consequence. Sex-ed advocates fail to offer a humanistic ideal consistent with nature that enriches and ennobles the sexual passion. Instead they reduce sex to mere copulation according to the philosophy of Alfred Kinsey who claimed that sex was nothing more than an "animalistic" urge devoid of any moral connotations. Should we be surprised then that young people today treat sex so casually and often act like animals?

Consider the mounting opposition to abstinence-centered education: Two weeks ago the ACLU launched a new website, Take Issue, Take Charge, urging local activists to promote "reproductive freedom" and oppose abstinence education.

Partners in the ACLU initiative include the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), which argued in a 2002 release, "In a free democratic society, sex education shouldn't be censored." Apparently encouraging kids to abstain from sex until marriage is some form of "censorship." Joining the ACLU in their statement opposing abstinence education is Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, Gay-Straight Alliance Network, the NOW Legal Fund, the National Education Association, and the Sexuality Information & Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), among others.

This month the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) began airing a "documentary" critical of abstinence education called The Education of Shelby Knox, complete with a companion website touting "safe sex" and featuring the work of anti-abstinence researchers. The Playboy Foundation was a primary financial contributor to the PBS movie. Do you think Playboy, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have the best interests of our children in mind when it comes to sex education?

We are doing our kids a great disservice by not holding up for them an ideal that gives them something to aspire to for the purposes of achieving fulfilling intimacy within the context of a life-long marriage commitment. After all sex is not merely an animalistic urge to be selfishly quenched but a deep human expression of intimacy that integrates husband and wife physically, emotionally, and psychologically. An approach to the subject of sex that offers anything less will only perpetuate the great human devastation that has occurred in the four decades since the sexual revolution.

Copyright 2005, National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. All rights reserved.

S. Michael Craven is the vice president for religion & culture at the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families and leads the work and ministry of Cultural Apologetics. The Cultural Apologetics ministry works to equip the Church to assert and defend biblical morality and ethics in a manner that is rational, relevant and persuasive in order to recapture the relevance of Christianity to all of life by demonstrating its complete correspondence to reality. For more information on Cultural Apologetics, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.CulturalApologetics.org

Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.

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Abstinence Education: Separating fact from philosophy