Utah's Abstinence-Only Education Law is a Betrayal of Our Children

Health & Wellness on 03.08.12
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It looks like the debate over abstinence-only education is rearing its ugly head once more. As reported in USA Today, Utah lawmakers have passed a law mandating that public schools teach abstinence and more abstinence as the only path to safe sex before marriage:

The Utah Legislature has passed a controversial bill mandating an abstinence-only sex education curriculum for Utah public schools or allows schools to drop the subject altogether.

The bill, which passed Tuesday largely along party lines, defines sex education as abstinence-only and bans instruction in sexual intercourse, homosexuality, contraceptive methods and sexual activity outside of marriage.

The bill's advocates argue that sex education should take place in the home, and that the Government has no place in instructing kids on the finer points of sexual intercourse.

From state schools spreading anti-gay literature to how to appropriately approach the topic of teen sexting, sex education is always likely to be a difficult and politically loaded subject. But to abandon the notion of sex education in schools - except from a very narrow, ideologically-informed perspective  - is, to this author at least, a dangerous precedent.

Besides betraying those kids who need advice on safe sex the most (many kids do not have parents who will discuss sex at all; others may not be able to approach family if their sexual preferences don't fit in with the heterosexual "norm"), it is also a step away from both science and common sense. We don't need research to tell us that teenage boys masturbate a lot, that teens have strong sexual urges, or that we are biologically programmed to act on those urges.

Some of us may wish that wasn't so, but it is. To simply ask kids to wait until marriage, and assume that everyone will, is wishful thinking in the extreme. As reported in OnlineAthens last year, research suggests that abstinence-only education may even be counterproductive:

The researchers also looked at the influence of other factors on teen pregnancy, such as socioeconomic status, education level, access to Medicaid waivers and ethnicity. Those factors can influence teen pregnancy rates, but the researchers still found that the more abstinence is emphasized in a state’s official sex education programs, the higher teenage pregnancy and birth rates are.

The states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates were those that prescribed comprehensive sex and/or HIV education, covering not only abstinence, but also proper contraception and condom use, said Stanger-Hall, a professor of plant biology and biological sciences in the Franklin College.

To be fair, there have also been some studies - as reported in this US News story on the abstinence-only debate - that have shown some students wait slightly longer before having sex if they attend an abstinence-only program. But to measure how long teens wait before having sex as the primary unit of success is, to my mind, a little simplistic. Unless abstinence-only education can encourage the vast majority of kids to abstain until married, then we still need to address the safety, well-being and health of those who do not choose to wait.

Abstinence has a clear place in the broad toolbox of sex education - and i hope my own kids wait until they are truly ready. (I am not hypocritical enough to hope that they will be married.) Other parents, with different beliefs or religious perspectives, may encourage their kids to wait until they are indeed married - that is both their right and their responsibility. But the only way that absinence-only education in schools can be justified is from an ideological perspective. And as shown in the religious battle over a faith-based banner, state schools have no place picking ideological sides.

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