News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

September 20, 2008

Tribune-Star editorial: Abstinence-only sex ed amounts to forced ignorance

TERRE HAUTE — The unplanned pregnancy of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter has been the most recent catalyst for Americans to revisit the issue of teenage pregnancy. Palin’s advocacy of abstinence-only sex education guaranteed that her daughter’s personal situation would become yet another topic for public and political wrangling.

According to an Indiana University sexual health scientist, that wrangling is the last thing society needs.

“We’ve got to stop treating this like a Republican-Democrat thing,” said Michael Reece, director of IU’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion. “We are talking about serious health issues here, including HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, issues with the potential to change and damage people’s lives.”

Like most mainstream researchers, Reece is more interested in data from responsible analysis than he is in hypothetical morality. The belief that teaching young people about their sexuality actually encourages them to have sex may be popular, but “we know from numerous studies that that’s just not true,” he said.

A report released last week by the National Sexuality Resource Center includes a substantial peer review of the nation’s various sex education programs for adolescents. Among the findings:

“[M]ost abstinence programs did not delay initiation of sex, and only 3 of 9 had any significant positive effects on any sexual behavior. In contrast, about two thirds of comprehensive programs showed strong evidence that they positively affected young people’s sexual behavior, including both delaying initiation of sex and increasing condom and contraceptive use among youth.” (The entire report can be found at nsrc.sfsu.edu.)

IU’s Reece points to several surveys of Indiana parents over the years that show most of them “want their kids to be prepared for sexuality when it happens.” Such preparation should include abstinence, but also all relevant elements of human sexual health, including body image and understanding how to negotiate relationships.

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