Last week, a dramatic event occurred which, despite
receiving little publicity outside America's scientific community, has had
a chilling impact among both serious educators and researchers concerned with
the public health of our children.
The annual National STD Prevention Conference, a yearly scientific meeting
sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, was supposed to have a symposium exploring the effectiveness
of abstinence-only (until-marriage) sex education in our nation's schools. Planning
this meeting had taken months, with participants submitting papers in accord
with the same rigorous scientific review process used in previous years.
But days before the event, the program was suddenly changed. What was to have
been a balanced critique of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs was substituted
for a new program, one in which just proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs would be heard, not those with abstinence plus programming. The
media reported that an influential Republican congressman had requested
Today, one week after the symposium, that last-minute program switch continues
to upset scientists both inside and outside the STD research community.
Many see it as an unwelcome injection of political ideology into what should
have been a purely scientific symposium. Yet scientists and academics should
not be the only ones concerned.
All parents, as well as all adults who make decisions in schools and communities,
should be disturbed. We are all responsible, in our roles at home and in our
communities, for ensuring that America's youth get the complete, medically accurate
unbiased truth about the risks of unprotected sex.
Those who support abstinence
programs - but want to supplement that information with data on how to prevent
pregnancy and disease - are often dismayed when inaccurate information is substituted
for facts, or when any discussion of disease prevention or contraception meets
resistance on the grounds that such talk corrupts the morals of young people.
We, the supporters of "abstinence-plus" programs, are on the same side as abstinence-only
proponents; we both want to protect the health of our young people.
There is strong consensus among researchers that abstinence should be the
starting point for all sex-education programs. But shouldn't young people receive
additional scientific facts - information they can discuss with their parents
- about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases; how they can be prevented
and how to avoid teen pregnancy?
Many school programs that encourage students to remain abstinent until they
are married do not always provide young people with the information they need.
Some resort instead to inaccurate information and, in some cases, gender stereotyping.
More importantly, many of these programs do not contain medically accurate information
about condoms, along with the skills to correctly use them.
Those who favor abstinence-only programs must recognize the reality that abstinence
often fails. A
recent study by Harvard University showed that of 14,000 young people who
pledged to remain virgins until married, 52 percent had sex within a year of
signing their pledge. The same study showed these young people had selective
memories when queried about their sexual behavior. A majority of those who had
sex denied ever having made a chastity pledge; a third who said they were non-virgins
the first time they were surveyed suddenly became virgins when they were surveyed
a second time.
When abstinence fails, young people are far more likely to have sex without
any protection. This can have terrible consequences because there are 19
million new STD infections among young people per year, including roughly
20,000 new HIV infections.
Strong scientific evidence supports contraceptive education. Studies have
shown that learning how to use condoms does not increase sexual activity among
young people who are already sexually active - nor does it result in earlier
initiation of sexual activity among those who are abstinent. In fact, a recent
article in the Journal
of Adolescent Health suggests that although abstinence is a healthy behavioral
option, abstinence as a sole option for adolescents is scientifically and ethically
problematic. The article also notes other realities:: few Americans remain abstinent
until marriage; many do not - or cannot - marry and initiation of sexual behaviors
occurs for most adolescents.
Ultimately, parents must provide the values young people need to make good
decisions, to respect themselves and others, and to develop responsible attitudes
toward sex. To the degree that any program - abstinence-only or abstinence-plus
- can help in this process, that program must be based on facts, not
is not only scientifically grounded public policy, it is the right thing to