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August 31, 2002
Column #1096

"Abstinence First" Is No Answer

     Words have power. And new phrases can be very powerful.

     How would you like your children take a course at school called "Abstinence Plus" or  "Abstinence First?" Doesn't it sound like it is designed to persuade young people to adopt sexual abstinence as their highest priority? 

     Actually such a course is what used to be called "Safe Sex," dressed up for the Bush era. Remember when that phrase "Safe Sex" came into vogue? While some urged kids to save sex till marriage, Saved Sex morphed into Safe Sex, made supposedly safe by giving kids condoms. 

     And before "Safe Sex," the hope of educators and not a few parents was "sex education." The idea was that if teens were told about the horrors of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) - and told about condoms that either the kids would be frightened into remaining chaste or, if they chose to have sex, would use a condom. 

     However, instead of reducing the fires of teen sexuality, sex education poured on gasoline. By 1988, when sex education reached most American teenagers, 51.5 percent of females aged 15-19 had engaged in premarital vs only 29 percent in 1970. Births to unmarried teens shot up from only 59,000 in 1950 to 337,000 by 1989. 

     Before sex education, there were only two STDs, syphilis and gonorrhea. There are now more than 20! A quarter of sexually active teens contract an STD. Further, condom use offers little protection against herpes and NO protection against HPV, the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer that kills 4,800 women a year. 

     And AIDS? A review of scientific literature reveals condoms fail to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus 15 to 31 percent of the time.

     So if your child is in an "Abstinence Plus" program, what are they learning? Junior high students unroll a condom on cucumbers or dildos. High school students in a course called "Focus on Kids," promoted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) hear this: 

     "There are other ways to be close to a person without having sexual intercourse...The list may include body massage, bathing together, masturbation, sensuous feeding, erotic movies."

     "To call these programs abstinence is a travesty," writes Jennifer Garrett of the Heritage Foundation. These programs already receive $1.1 billion of federal dollars. Yet Sen. Max Baucus, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, added an amendment to the renewal of welfare reform that would pour in another $50 million a year for Abstinence First. The bill passed his committee in July, and the Senate will vote on it this fall.

     The House version of the bill provides $50 million for "abstinence only" programs to persuade teenagers of the value of chastity and to give them skills to resist the all too available opportunities. They don't hand out condoms or encourage their use. 

     Critics say this approach doesn't work. However, 10 scientifically evaluated abstinence programs have reduced teen sexual activity by 17 percent to 50 percent. For the past five years, under the original welfare reform bill, "abstinence only" programs received $50 million a year.

     The result? A CDC study says that the percentage of high school youth who have lost their virginity has fallen from 54 percent in 1990 to only 45.6 percent in 2001. For the first time in a generation, a majority of high school kids are remaining chaste! And teen births have fallen from 62 per 1000 teenagers in 1991 to 49/1000 in 2000.

     Clearly, this is a trend which ought to be encouraged, and not terminated and replaced with an approach which urges abstinence, but also supplies youth with information and means to be promiscuous. 

     St. Paul wrote, "Keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity. Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body, not abusing it as is so common among those who know nothing of God." 

     Real abstinence programs build on that wisdom by helping young people develop an understanding of commitment, fidelity and intimacy that will serve them well as the foundations of healthy marital life in the future.

     Abstinence programs tell youth the truth that the more partners they have, the more likely they are to get an STD or become pregnant. More important, they teach "that human happiness is most likely to be found in marital commitment, not casual sex," writes Ms. Garrett.

     President Bush argues: "When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral. Government should not sell children short by assuming they are incapable of acting responsibly. We must promote good choices."


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