Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Abstinence-Only Fails, Contraception Works

While obvious inferences might be drawn from my title to the recent scandal regarding the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate's family, aside this notice I'm not especially interested in talking about them. I suspect I will be the odd man out on this blog, since I find the daily news cycle a bit tedious and thus am rarely inclined to do straight, topical posts. We all have our different strengths and weaknesses. My interest is more issue- and idea-oriented.

It has for some time been a standard Republican policy to support one and only one form of sex education in the schools: "Don't do it!" This approach is the darling of social conservatives, who can correctly point out that abstaining from sex is a most efficacious way to avoid being pregnant or contracting a sexually-transmitted disease. It's even fair to say that recommending teenagers do not have sex because they lack the life experience or emotional maturity to handle the personal and interpersonal issues involved in that decision. One does not want teenagers to have sex for the same reasons one does not want them drinking, smoking, or any number of other things.

However, there's an element of equivocation I often observe in the social conservative appeal to abstinence. Yes, abstinence is a 100% effective way to avoid ending up in unfortunate situations that only arise from having sex. If a disease can only be transmitted sexually, refraining from sex will spare you any risk of the disease. But this simply ignores obvious reality that teenagers will have sex. Not all of them, certainly, but some percentage will. This has likely been a constant for the whole of human history, so the notion that a few teachers and parents telling them to do otherwise is breathtakingly naive.

Yet this is exactly the position one must endorse in order to favor abstinence-only education. Yes, abstinence works for those who remain abstinent. However, teaching abstinence and abstinence only leaves those who do elect to have sex as endangered as they possibly can be by their conduct. Closing our eyes and hoping for the best is not just bad policy, but an abrogation of our responsibility to the next generation.

Given that some teenagers will have sex, whether we tell them to or not, what can we do about the resultant pathologies? The answer is obvious to anyone who has read my title. We can teach teenagers about contraception. We can educate them about proper condom use. We can inform them about birth control pills. These are all simple, common sense solutions that also happen to work, as this just-released study demonstrates:

“The United States seems to be following the recent patterns in other developed countries where increased availability and use of modern contraceptives and condoms have led to remarkable declines in teen pregnancy,” said lead author John Santelli. “If most of the progress in reducing teen pregnancy rates is due to improved contraceptive use, national policy needs to catch up with those realities.”

Clearly we are enjoying a decline in teen pregnancy, and we have not abstinence-only education but greater access information about contraception to credit for it. So why do we have social conservatives pushing the exclusion of education about contraception from the curriculum? Are they devoted to increasing teen pregnancy? Is there a sexually-transmitted disease lobby plying them?

No. Rather it seems that the social conservatives have decided that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong in itself and doing anything to aid those who elect to have such sex is only aiding a sinner in escaping punishment. If one accepts this premise, then one must conclude that abstinence-only education is working exactly as intended.

I have sometimes heard from conservatives who will admit to some of these facts that whatever the case may be, sex education is not the place of the schools. Having them involved means that children could learn things contrary to the values or beliefs of their parents. Isn't questioning your opinions, however cherished, the thing a good education is supposed to be about in the first place?

As I fail to see how teaching children about abstinence and contraception in the schools prevents parents from also teaching children about abstinence, condoms, or anything else they wish to teach their children, I see no grounds on which to make an objection except the notion that sex is a dirty thing that you should only give to one you love enough to marry and those who think otherwise deserve hardship and disease. I find it impossible to make a moral defense of any such position.


James said...

I'm consistently amazed at how when it comes to "Sex Education"--it seems to be an "Either Or" proposition.

I personally do the Abstinence should be the 1st option--but not the only one.

Samnell said...

Nobody is suggesting that abstinence be banished from sex education, so far as I am aware. If I were designing such a curriculum, I'd put it in as the first item and then discuss the others as alternatives. I'd also suggest mutual masturbation in preference to penetration. Then I'd talk about condoms.