May 2, 2008

Who could argue with the idea that, when it comes to sex education, our teenagers should be taught to say “no”? Considering what’s at stake (their health, their future, their dignity as human beings, their morality) -- and because we love them and want what’s best for them -- nothing short of a clear-cut abstinence message will do.

At least, that’s how it appears out here in the Real World. In the rarified air of a congressional hearing room, it’s another matter. According to several witnesses (including John Santelli of the Guttmacher Institute, and Max Siegel of the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families) who spoke recently before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, abstinence education is not only impractical, it’s dangerous.

Many critics of the abstinence-only programs that have been federally funded over the past 11 years resort to the old kids-will-be-kids argument. They’ll “do it anyway,” we’re told, so we’re wasting time and money on an idealistic charade. Worse, we’re depriving our rutting youth of the “protection” they need to make their unions non-fruitful and disease-free.

Lawmakers didn’t hear from actual teenagers, though. “The greatest failure of this committee was not allowing those that were being talked about -- the teens themselves -- the opportunity to share how and why abstinence programs have worked for them,” said Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse. “I saw abstinent young adults in the audience appearing frustrated, saying they wish they could share their opinion on this matter.”

A quick review of the resulting coverage finds that the witnesses’ agenda has a receptive audience among the media. Typical headlines include “Abstinence-only sex ed discredited” (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Indiana), “A real-world solution to teenage pregnancy” (Houston Chronicle) and “Abstinence-only education not enough” (Rapid City Journal, South Dakota).

I hate to interrupt their collective dream with something as inconvenient as the facts. Actual research, however, shows that the abstinence message works.

In a major new paper, Christine Kim and Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation sifted carefully through numerous studies on the effectiveness of abstinence programs and found clear evidence that they work. “In addition to teaching the benefits of abstaining from sexual activity until marriage, abstinence programs focus on developing character traits that prepare youths for future-ori­ented goals,” the researchers write.

But some teenagers get pregnant anyway, the critics reply. True. As Kim and Rector note:

“Each year, some 2.6 million teenagers become sexually active -- a rate of 7,000 teens per day. Among high school students, nearly half report having engaged in sexual activity, and one-third are currently active.”

Yet this doesn’t amount to an argument against teaching abstinence. No one ever said that abstinence programs would wipe out teen pregnancy. Any improvement on this front is nothing short of miraculous, given the barrage of trashy media and cultural messages targeted at kids. The critics are engaging in a classic “straw man” argument, and they should be called on it.