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In the "No" on Abstinence Education

  • Rebecca Hagelin The Heritage Foundation
  • 2008 2 May
In the "No" on Abstinence Education


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.

The real question is: Do abstinence programs make the problem any better? Kim and Rector show that they do. In my book, Home Invasion, I cited additional Heritage research:

“In the decade or so that true abstinence-only programs have grown in popularity, the percentage of teens who say they have had sex by the time they leave high school has fallen from 56 to 48. A popular component of the abstinence-only movement, virginity pledges, has produced even better results. According to The Heritage Foundation, teens who take a virginity pledge are less likely to become pregnant by age 18, and will have fewer sexual partners in their lifetime than teens who do not take a pledge.”

We also must ask ourselves if the alternative -- so-called “comprehensive sex education,” with its pornographic emphasis on the mechanics of sex -- is any better. These programs have proven to be dismal failures. They’ve held sway for years in our nation’s classrooms, and teen sexual behavior, STDs and pregnancies have all been going up. As Kim and Rector point out:

“Today’s young people face strong peer pressure to engage in risky behavior and must navigate media and popular culture that endorse and even glamorize permissiveness and casual sex. Alarm­ingly, the government implicitly supports these messages by spending over $1 billion each year pro­moting contraception and safe-sex education -- 12 times what it spends on abstinence education.”

I hope you find that as outrageous as I do. Our teens deserve better than just a condom and a message to “be safe.” Our children are not animals, incapable of controlling themselves. They are not hopelessly immoral creatures who are going to “do it anyway.” Yet “comprehensive” sex ed teaches them that they’re just that. Parents, this is a slander against our youth. It’s a lie -- one that we must fight.

Teaching abstinence may be hard work -- and heaven knows it’s not going to win you any popularity contests. But for the sake of our teens, there’s simply no substitute. In the end, you’re the only real “protection” they’ve got. So don’t let them down.

Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of “Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad“ and runs the Web site