By Cristina Page
New research reveals that female students in programs that promote abstinence exclusively are more likely to get pregnant than those in programs that teach about the full range of contraceptives as well as abstinence. The news, published in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, is just the latest proof that the $1.5 billion dollar “just say no to sex” experiment on our teens has failed. And while Christian conservatives defend their approach even in the face of this latest devastating news, it’s time to ask them one simple question: Shouldn’t the results matter?
At current rates, half of all teenagers will have sex before graduating high school and 95 percent will before marrying. These statistics infuriate the abstinence-until-marriage proponents. Their hope is that, by keeping teens in the dark about protection, ignorance will somehow lead to temperance. Those most committed to the abstinence approach seem to have paid most dearly though. Earlier findings by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities revealed that teens taking part in virginity pledge programs (they pledge to stay virgins until marriage) are more likely than their non-pledging peers to engage in risky unprotected sex. The study also showed virgin pledgers were six times more likely to have oral sex and male “virgins” are four times more likely to have anal sex than those who do not take the pledge. These “virgins” had the same rate of STDs as other teens but were much less likely to be treated for them.
Southern school districts, which are five times more likely to use the abstinence-only approach than northeast schools, have much to show for investing in the abstinence-only. Today, southern states lead the nation in the acquisition of STDs, are home to the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS cases, and have the highest percentage of teen mothers in the country. The damage is so staggering that 17 states have opted to reject federal funding for abstinence only. In the long term, they concluded, the costs of their failure outweigh any benefits.
Abstinence is not the only policy that Christian conservatives pursue despite evidence that it doesn’t work. In fact, much of the movement’s policies have, even by their own standards, led to perverse outcomes. Consider the drive to outlaw abortion. Last year, 11 states moved to ban abortion immediately and create a case to test Roe vs. Wade in the Supreme Court. But, if ending abortion is the goal, banning abortion is quite possibly the worst strategy. The countries with the highest abortion rates in the world are those that have banned abortion. Take Latin America, where most countries have outlawed abortion yet have the same rate or- as in the case of Peru, Chile and the Dominican Republic -- rates twice as high as the United States. And where on earth have the lowest abortion rates been achieved? In countries with the strongest pro-choice policies; like the Netherlands, Germany and Italy where abortion is not only legal, but in several cases available free of charge. This pro-choice policy/lower abortion rate trend has been true in our country as well. We witnessed the most dramatic decline in abortion in the history of our country under our first pro-choice president, Bill Clinton. These declines continue today and notably where it is falling sharpest is where the strongest pro-choice policies, namely prevention through wider access to contraception, have been adopted.
And while banning abortion has failed to stop abortions, limiting abortion rights has also produced undesired outcomes. A favorite tactic of the “right to life” movement is to impose mandatory delay policies on abortion. A woman must receive information about her right to an abortion and then must wait 24 to 48 hours before receiving a procedure. Sounds harmless enough. However, while these policies have had little effect on the frequency of abortion they have dramatically increased late term abortions. In the year after Mississippi passed a mandatory delay law, second trimester abortion increased statewide by 53 percent. Nearly half the number of women presenting for an abortion late in pregnancy these days cite pro-life restrictions as the cause.
The danger of policies guided by ideology is that the means often are the end. There is no better example of the deleterious effects of policies based on wishful thinking than in the reproductive rights debate. We need to respect people’s ability to make their own life decisions and not impose our values and views upon them. If Americans were to set aside the catchy sound bites and suspiciously simplistic reasoning and instead judge by results, most would find the pro-choice movement is a more comfortable home for their stated values.
Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for BirthControlWatch.org
Copyright (C) 2007 by the American Forum. 4/08