Friday, February 08, 2008

Abstinence-Only Defies Voters’ Priorities

By Dr. Charles Jaynes and Margery Engel Loeb

A year ago, Governor Rick Perry showed great leadership when he issued an executive order requiring the state's sixth grade girls to get the HPV vaccine, to prevent cervical cancer. It was a bold move for a state that is conflicted about how best to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

But, if Gov. Perry truly wants to stop the spread of STDs, he will change the state's policy that allows teaching abstinence-only sex education. Recent studies have revealed that an abstinence-only plan won't stop the spread of STDs or decrease the rates of teen pregnancy.

Texas teenagers lead the nation in birth rates, and, as new figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show, after 14 years of steady decline, teen pregnancy rates went up 3 percent across the country in 2006. To many public health officials and educators, the cause for the increases in pregnancy was apparent: since 1996 the only federal funding available to states for sex education is for "abstinence-only" curricula.

Meanwhile, not only have teen pregnancy rates gone up but so have instances of STDs. Lubbock, for example, for 10 years led the nation in the number of Chlamydia and gonorrhea infections, one-third of which came from 15 to 19 year olds. Sexually active teenagers are no longer provided with information on how to prevent pregnancy or the spread of STDs. A rash of studies have also shown that the programs do not succeed in stopping or even significantly delaying teen sex. Despite this, Congress extended funding for "abstinence-only" sex education for another six months.

But a growing number of states have drawn a line on continuing with "abstinence-only" sex education. This year alone 18 states chose to forgo federal funding, and send a message to Washington that we only want to spend our money on effective programs that really protect our children. Texas also needs to voice our concerns to Washington.

While Texas law offers the option of teaching an “abstinence plus” curriculum -- which would include some lessons on birth control -- few schools use this option because the federal dollars are restricted for the abstinence-only lessons, and the money for the “plus” part has to be raised separately.

The criteria for "abstinence-only" programs demand great sins of omission; the only means of pregnancy prevention taught is that of abstaining from sexual activity. Ditto for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

Some of the lesson plans, in their zeal to support abstinence, actually disparage the usefulness of other form of protection, planning or prevention. We need to help our teens learn how to make responsible decisions by arming them with complete information that they will use for the rest of their lives.

Most parents agree it's simply unrealistic to believe that you can stop all teens from having sex by telling them "not to do it," especially when studies report that 60 to 70 percent of teens are sexually active by age 19. That's why 88 percent of voters, according to recent research commissioned by the Women Donors Network, together with Communications Consortium Media Center, agree that "comprehensive sex education should be taught in schools that includes information about abstinence, contraception, and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS." Eighty-one percent of voters surveyed support a much broader discussion on health issues.

The hard-core activists who push the abstinence-only agenda -- even in light of new evidence that it is not effective in reducing sexual activity, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections -- comprise fewer than 10 percent of voters. Why should they alone get to make educational decisions that could have grave consequences for other people's children?

The reasonable majority of parents who want their children to receive an appropriate and informative form of sex education can no longer afford to stay silent on the issue. States are pushing for change because they would rather put money into programs that work, and not be forced by the federal government into funding unsuccessful plans.

It is crucial for parents to speak to their elected officials and school boards about the need for comprehensive health and sex education. If parents want their children to be presented with accurate health information so that they can make responsible choices about important life decisions -- like when to become a parent -- then that reasonable majority of parents needs to make themselves heard.
Jaynes is a practicing obstetrician gynecologist in Victoria, Texas. Loeb is a board member of the Women Donors Network and leads their project on reproductive and other health issues.

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