The post that follows is a piece written as an Op-Ed sort of assignment for my Community Health Development class. There are some (many?) health issues on which my position is rather different than that of the Religious Right/Evangelical crowd in which I grew up. It's intriguing that my own deeply held Christian faith drives me in radically different directions than what is typically considered "orthodox" by the loudest Christian voices out there. This is something I'll be exploring in this space for a while.
It is nearly universally agreed that some sort of sex education is necessary for teens. According to a poll by the Guttmacher Institute, 90% of parents of middle and high school students believe that sex education should be taught in school. The ongoing conversation revolves around what sort of education is appropriate, what topics should be included, and how it should be carried out. Not all sex education programs are equally effective.
Ideally, sex education programs should be chosen based on whether they have been shown to be effective, but this is often not the case.
Abstinence-only education programs have been shown to have only limited, short term impacts on teens’ attitudes and intentions towards sex. However, in 1996 President Clinton established funding for abstinence-only programs in Section 510 of the 1996 Social Security Act. President Bush later increased funding and tightened regulations on what these programs could include.
This legislation has been loudly supported by conservative groups, and a thinktank known as the Heritage Foundation has been particularly vocal in lobbying for federal funding for abstinence-only problems. Unfortunately, they have resorted to mental gymnastics to defend their position. In 2002, Robert Rector, senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation praised abstinence-only programs saying:
“Abstinence programs also can provide the foundation for personal responsibility and enduring marital commitment. Therefore, they are vitally important to efforts aimed at reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing among young adult women, improving child well-being, and increasing adult happiness over the long term.”
Rector insists that programs that are abstinence-based do not provide these same benefits, because information about safe sex practices is included. However, after an Add Health study showed no significant differences between STI rates between individuals who made virginity pledges and teens and those who did not, Rector and collaborator Kirk Johnson claimed that the Add Health findings (that there are no statistical differences in STI rates among virginity pledgers and nonvirginity pledgers) are inaccurate because, when the final interviews were conducted, respondents were no longer adolescents, but were young adults aged 19 to 25. According to Rector and Johnson, “Many years may have passed since an individual made his or her virginity pledge. Thus, the Add Health data provide an imperfect basis for measuring the link between pledging and STDs.” This statement directly contradicts Rector’s previous remarks on the long term benefits of abstinence and abstinence education.
Furthermore, Rector and Johnson question the scientific validity of the Add Health data, saying :
It is true that, using the urine sample measure of three STDs, the differences in STD rates between pledgers and non-pledgers are not statistically significant at the 95 percent confidence level. But the differences in STD rates do fall within a hairbreadth of the 95 percent significance threshold. Multivariate regressions (presented later), using the three STD's in urine sample measure as the dependent (predicted) variable reaffirm that pledgers have lower rates of STDs; this finding is significant at the 91 to 94 percent confidence levels.
Rector and Johnson fail to mention that the 95% confidence level is the standard long held by the scientific community for interpreting scientific significance. While a 91-94 percent confidence level may suggest impact, it proves absolutely nothing.
Voters and policy makers need to be aware that advocates for abstinence-only sex education are contradicting themselves and distorting scientific evidence. These actions are not the result of a concern for teens’ welfare, or wellmeaning ignorance but of an obsession with power and control. Policy makers should refuse to condone these tactics by continuing to provide funds for abstinence-only sex education.
Heritage Foundation documents consulted:
Rector, R.(2002) The effectiveness of abstinence education programs in reducing sexual
activity among youth. Retrieved on March 20, 2010 from the Heritage Foundation
Rector, R., Johnson, K., (2005) Adolescent virginity pledges, condom use, and sexually
transmitted diseases among young adults. Retrieved on March 20, 2010 from the Heritage
Foundation website: http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2005/06/Adolescent-