Abstinence ghost in the reform machine

Updated December 27.

Abstinence education – the curriculum to tell adolescents not to have sex instead of telling them about sex – lives on in the health care reform as it emerged from the Senate. The House version does not include it. How they will be reconciled remains to be seen.

On the subject, I wrote previously:

In the last 15 years, the public provision of real sex education has been drastically curtailed in this country. In the short period from 1995 to 2002 the percentage of adolescents receiving formal instruction on birth control methods dropped from 81% to 66% for boys, and 87% to 70% for girls. This was driven by the political movement for “abstinence only” education, abetted by $1.9 billion in federal and mandatory state matching funds.

What did we get for $1.9 billion? Nothing good. Abstinence only education has been shown to have no effect on how much teenagers have sex – none. It also has no effect on the number of partners teenagers have if they do have sex, and no effect on birth control use, pregnancy rates, or sexually transmitted disease infection. Not that these programs don’t accomplish anything. Like virginity pledges, abstinence-only programs do help spread myths that discourage condom use. The opt-out provisions for sex education are intended to permit parents to raise their children according to a particular moral code, and their children’s free access to lifesaving knowledge is a secondary concern.

We also know that leaving it to parents often means adolescents don’t learn in time, or effectively enough. So the right of parents to control their children’s access to knowledge conflicts with the right of adolescents to education.

The Senate health reform bill includes “Restoration of Funding for Abstinence Education,” which is money for states to run their own abstinence-only education programs — to spread what advocates like to call a “primary prevention message.” The abstinence money was added in committee, at the request of Orin Hatch and with support of a few Democrats. “I sure do not want the abstinence education to be short-changed,” he said.

One byproduct of the hundreds of millions spent in the Bush years is an abstinence bureaucracy, with more than a hundred programs and a flourishing national association, all hoping for money from Washington.

“We’re optimistic,” said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association, which is lobbying to maintain funding for the programs. “Nothing is certain, but we’re hopeful.”

The approach that ends up in the health reform bill may be to combine federal support for states’ abstinence-only programs – as an option – with actual sex education, currently known as, “medically accurate and age appropriate programs.”

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