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May 25, 2002
Column #1082

''Chastity Till Marriage Sanctimonious Nonsense?''

     Columnist Richard Cohen of The Washington Post sneered recently at a provision in welfare reauthorization approved by the House which continued a $50 million appropriation to teach ''abstinence only'' as the best way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases that infect 15 million people a year including 3.8 million teenagers.

     President Bush praised abstinence recently, saying ''It works every time.''

     Cohen sputtered that the abstinence only program ''persists despite no evidence that it works.'' He characterized ''chastity till marriage'' as ''sanctimonious nonsense,'' and even called promoting chastity a ''totalitarian concept'' which is ''truly an abuse of power.''

     ''No evidence that it works?'' Consider a report on Uganda in the liberal New Republic by Arthur Allen. In 1986, after his guerilla force seized power, Yoweri Museveni sent 60 of his top officers to Cuba for training. Months later, Fidel Castro told Museveni that 18 of the 60 were HIV-positive. Museveni took Castro's warning seriously.

     Within a year, he led a nationwide mobilization that involved bishops, imams and public health experts as well as thousands of small community groups. The program became known as ABC for ''Abstain, Be Faithful, or wear a Condom.'' 

     However, ''Ugandans never took to condoms'' says Dr. Vinand Nantulya, an infectious disease specialist who advised Museveni, a high school chum, who now directs Harvard's School of Public Health. Therefore, the message promoted across Uganda was even simpler: abstain from sex until marriage and then ''zero grazing,'' or fidelity. Billboards promoting chastity and fidelity are omnipresent in Uganda. 

     With what result? In 1991 21 percent of Ugandan pregnant women tested positive for HIV, but a decade later only 6 percent are infected! By contrast, in next door Kenya the rate is 15 percent. It is 32 percent in Zimbabwe and a stunning 38 percent in Botswana - and is growing.

     Since Uganda's experience is unique in sub-Saharan Africa, many ask how it can be replicated. Museveni's strong leadership was key. Condoms had little to do with it. Only 5 percent of men use condoms in Uganda.

     Most striking is the drastic reduction of women who have had multiple sex partners. The number plunged from 18 percent in 1989 to only 2.5 percent in 2000. And the rate of marriage of those 15 to 19 is 76 percent compared to 37 percent in neighboring Kenya.

     ''Uganda's experience suggests that abstinence and fidelity may be the key to whipping AIDS in Africa,'' concludes The New Republic. ''Uganda's prevention model has the potential to reduce the AIDS rate in Africa's worst-stricken countries by 80 percent, the same level of efficacy one might expect from an HIV vaccine.''

     America also needs to consider this model, which is a deeply Biblical one. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: ''For God wants you to be holy and pure, and to keep clear of all sexual sin so that each of you will marry in holiness and honor - not in lustful passion as the heathen do, in their ignorance of God and his ways.''

     What's the legacy of America's ''sexual revolution?'' From 1960 to 2000, the number of couples cohabiting has soared from 430,000 to 5 million, and the number of babies born out-of-wedlock jumped from 224,000 to 1,350,000, from 5 to 33 percent of births.

     Can these trends be reversed? Can abstinence be taught to Americans? Since 1996, Congress has appropriated $50 million a year to promote it, renewed narrowly by the House last week on a 229-197 vote along party lines.

     Teens in abstinence classes who sign a pledge to remain a virgin are one-fourth as likely to become sexually active as peers who don't sign. 

     A campaign promoting abstinence in Rochester, NY called ''Not Me Not Now'' featured paid TV and radio ads, billboards, an interactive website and classes. Sexual activity by 15-year- olds fell from 47 to 32 percent. Teen pregnancies feel from 63 per 1,000 girls to 49.5.

     However the federal Centers for Disease Control do not believe in abstinence. One ''CDC Program That Works'' is ''Focus on Kids'' which features a ''Condom Race.'' Kids are divided into teams who compete in a race to put condoms on cucumbers or dildos. They are also asked to ''brainstorm ways to be close'' such as ''body massage, bathing together, masturbation, watching erotic movies.'' Parents sign a form agreeing that what happens ''will not be reported to me.''

     Bush met recently with Museveni. Perhaps Bush will now fire some people at CDC and begin making an unabashed case for abstinence. 

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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