Senate Vote Displays Reality Check in Sex Education Debate

Posted October 6, 2009 at 11:09am

In a political landscape strewn with the thorny weeds of hyperpartisanship, a rare bipartisan bloom of common sense and responsiveness to the wishes of constituents prevailed in (of all things) the never-ending sex education debate. In an amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the Senate Finance Committee voted, by a slim margin, to restore Title V, which provides states with funding to provide abstinence education to youths.

[IMGCAP(1)]After concerted efforts by opponents, this victory clearly indicates that facts made a difference. Two Democratic Senators, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, joined their Republican colleagues to affirm the value of such programs in their states. This move is the first step toward reversing the administration’s attempt to zero out every cent devoted to abstinence education.

Contrary to public advocacy campaigns denouncing abstinence education as unpopular, parents, schools and community groups throughout the country have voiced their support for such programs. A Zogby poll found that regardless of whether parents self-identify as liberal or conservative, once they understand the difference between “comprehensive— sex education and abstinence-centered education, they overwhelmingly favor the federally funded abstinence approach by a margin of 2-to-1. They want their children to learn the importance of developing self-efficacy and self-regulation, of waiting to have sex until they marry, of knowing how to identify a healthy and unhealthy relationship. They want them to understand that a condom has limitations; that while it can reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, only abstinence can prevent them. These are all topics covered in abstinence-centered classes currently funded by Congress. Conversely, they don’t want the type of explicit, sex “how to— instruction that is all too often a part of a “comprehensive— sex education class.

Members of Congress would do well to listen to the caring position of parents on this issue. This sentiment is clearly indicated in the recent vote to affirm Title V as legislators increasingly see the positive effects of these programs in their states. Once Members separate this issue from the often-clouded perspective of Beltway politics, they are persuaded by the real-life differences that such programs are making in the lives of youths in their districts. And these positive differences are backed up by research that documents the positive behavioral impact of abstinence education programs. In fact, growing research shows that teens who are a part of an abstinence program are about half as likely to initiate sex as their peers. Given this information, Members are right in providing resources to continue these important programs.

Advocates for Youth, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States and Planned Parenthood, some of the most vocal abstinence opponents, have designated October as the Sex Ed Month of Action in which they will lobby Congress against abstinence education in favor of “reproductive justice— and the Responsible Education About Life Act. They will trumpet their cause behind a disingenuous facade of promoting sexual restraint among teens.

Even the most cursory look at the “comprehensive— curricula they recommend, however, reveals an alarming disregard for messages that provide the healthiest outcome for teens. It is important that legislators not be misled by front-line talking points that make it seem that “abstinence— is a significant theme in this approach. It is not … and it is seriously out of step with what mainstream American parents want for their children. The reality is that any approach intent on changing behavior must be continually reinforced, and practical skills must be provided to teens so they can efficaciously reject momentary sexual pleasure in exchange for long-term benefits. Will the REAL Act or “comprehensive— sex education provide that? No. Few, if any, “comprehensive— curricula have any genuine abstinence skill-building components. Rather, they focus on making sure that sexual partners are consensual, all the while giving teens the implied and medically inaccurate notion that sex with a condom carries no risk.

A 2008 report by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed a striking 1-4 funding disparity between abstinence education and “comprehensive— sex education. While it is true that the “comprehensive— funds are tucked within other larger funding pots such as AIDS prevention and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designations, rather than being separate, the reality is that these monies regularly find their way into local health classrooms, in which educators from the local health department or Planned Parenthood affiliate provide condom demonstrations and contraceptive lessons in pregnancy prevention.

We need a reality check in this contentious discussion. The fact is the CDC reports the majority of high school students are not having sex, and most sexually experienced teens are not sexually active. This begs the question: “Does our funding and messaging target this group with the skills and information necessary to reinforce and sustain their healthy choice of abstinence?— Legislative appropriations decisions must reflect a bipartisan consensus that teens should receive the tools they need to persist in healthy behaviors. The current Teen Pregnancy Prevention funding, proposed by President Barack Obama in his 2010 budget, generously funds contraception, but without any serious or deliberate emphasis on abstinence. We need dedicated funds that give priority to the risk avoidance message of abstinence. The recent successful vote on the Hatch abstinence amendment is a small step in the right direction.

Valerie Huber is executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.