News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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.

“Recent research in this area shows that few students are receiving critical sexuality information in public schools, even about the most basic topics like reproductive anatomy,” Reece said.

The United States leads all developed nations in the world in teen pregnancy. Three in 10 U.S. females will conceive by age 20. Four-fifths of those pregnancies will be unplanned and at least half will result in children being born, often to mothers barely past childhood themselves.

“The fact that teens are getting pregnant, that HIV and other STDs are increasing, indicates that something isn’t working,” Reece said. “It is an ideal right now that teenagers abstain from sex. But not teaching people about their body at these crucial stages of development is wrong.”

It isn’t as though kids will magically learn upon their wedding night, Reece said: “We have a sexually illiterate society; it’s not just kids. This is about preparing people to deal with things that will happen over a life span.”

On no other personal health issue are young people so deliberately kept in the dark. Smoking, alcohol, substance abuse, diet, obesity, eating disorders, environmental hazards? We recognize the benefits of comprehensive education in all those areas. Why do we think we are doing kids a favor to deprive them of the same approach to information about their sexuality?

That kind of forced ignorance isn’t moral, it’s downright dangerous.