Piece on Abstinence Education Was Misleading

Posted October 9, 2009 at 11:03am

On Oct. 6, I was shocked to find an opinion piece in Roll Call online, masquerading as a news article. Written by Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, the piece was a slanted and misguided rant in favor of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. It was so rife with misleading statements and outright lies, that I felt it necessitated a response.[IMGCAP(1)]She begins her article by suggesting that Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who were swing votes in passing an amendment attempting to restore funds to the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, did so because the facts were on Huber’s side. In all likelihood, these two Democratic Senators from very red states voted this way in an effort to gain some conservative support in the next election. Simply put, this vote was about politics and showmanship, not the quality of these programs. We know this because every sensible person and organization who has studied this issue has come to the same conclusions: Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs don’t work and the vast majority of people in this country do not support them.A study, released in 2007, which was commissioned by the federal government and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., found that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs had absolutely no positive effects on the sexual behavior of youth. At the same time, studies conducted by some of the pre-eminent sexuality researchers in the field, such as Dr. Douglas Kirby, have found that many comprehensive sexuality education programs, which also include information on abstinence, have positive effects such as delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and increasing condom or contraceptive use. Ms. Huber’s claims that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs work are based on the biased work of a few fringe researchers.It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which of these programs we should be funding, and which our children should receive in school. I have three daughters, and while I want all of them to learn about abstinence, as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States has always suggested, and delay sex until they’re older, I also want them to have the knowledge to protect themselves when they do become sexually active. Ms. Huber would have you believe that I’m in the minority among parents. She points to a Zogby poll that, she claims, shows that most parents support abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Here’s what she didn’t tell you about the poll. First, her organization, the NAEA, commissioned the poll, not some independent, unbiased party. Second, after the NAEA continued over the months to misuse this poll, claiming that it showed parents supported abstinence 2-1, Fritz Wenzel, director of communications for Zogby, attempted to correct misunderstandings. He wrote that the “survey was a message testing survey commissioned by an interested party, not a benign issue poll to determine public sentiment on the topic. We emphasize the fact that these surveys have limited or no value for the purpose of news reports because they contain questions with pre-set premises that do not necessarily match reality or the mindset of the general public or the voting public in America today.— Yet the NAEA continues to misuse the poll. What does this say about the credibility and character of this organization? Sadly, nothing positive. Wait, there’s more. Ms. Huber claims that comprehensive sexuality education receives four times as much funding as abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. That would be four times the $1.5 billion these programs have received since their inception. Yet even she admits in her piece that she is counting money from much broader sources. How broad? Well, federal money to provide prenatal care to poor women; she counts that. Funds to prevent HIV transmission from mothers to children; she counts that too. We can only hope this is the last remnants of the “fuzzy math— of George W. Bush’s America. Ms. Huber’s final claim is a little bit trickier. She claims that the majority of high school students are not having sex. Well, technically, she is correct. It is only 47.8 percent of all high school students that have had sex, according to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, by senior year, that number has gone up to almost 66 percent. So we cannot afford, as Ms. Huber seems to want, to stick our heads in the sand and pretend everything is OK because the truth is that young people are having sex and, right now, they don’t have the knowledge to protect themselves. I really hate writing pieces like this, because we have our own, positive work to focus on, and if we responded every time Valerie Huber or one of her cohorts went off the deep end, we’d run out of hours in the day. However, this time I couldn’t overlook it because there is too much at stake. There are bills before Congress, specifically the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, that will provide dedicated, federal funding for comprehensive sexuality education. All policymakers who support the health and well-being of young people should get behind this bill. Furthermore, we are very grateful that our federal government is finally following the evidence and the will of parents and is transitioning to eliminating abstinence-only-until-marriage funds and funding a more comprehensive approach. As an advocate and a parent, I urge you to support comprehensive sexuality education for the healthy futures of America’s young people. Joseph DiNorcia Jr. is president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.