TV & Radio
Abstinence-only approach not enough
July 7, 2005 - New York Newsday
Abstinence-only sex education for teenagers took another hit this week when a prominent group of pediatricians came out in support of giving them access to birth control.
In an article in the current journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, its committee on adolescence concludes that while pediatricians should encourage adolescents to postpone early sexual activity, they should also make sure they have access to contraceptives, including emergency contraception.
The recommendation flies in the face of the abstinence-only approach being pushed by the Bush administration and religious groups. And dramatically, the article abandoned the academy's former policy that called abstinence counseling "an important role for all pediatricians."
"Because there isn't any evidence that that message is effective," said Dr. Scott Spear, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and chair of the national medical committee of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
"As scientists we're saying we don't want politics to trump what's healthy and safe for young people."
The academy's report is one more in a series of studies that have concluded that the just-say-no approach has no proven record of reducing sexual activity or pregnancy among teenagers.
And this one comes directly from the doctors who treat young people.
Yet the Bush administration is pushing relentlessly on with its efforts to make sure that the abstinence-only message is the only kind of sex education available to young people.
In 2001, a few years after the push to expand such programs began, the federal government spent $80 million on abstinence-only programs. It will spend $167 million in this fiscal year.
"We've got more than 10 years of federal financing to the tune of $700 million for abstinence-only, and no science shows that it's effective," Dr. Spear told me.
While no one, including myself, wants to encourage sexual activity among teenagers, the abstinence-only policy is flawed because it chooses idealism over helping young people with the lives they actually lead.
The academy found that 45 percent of high school girls and 48 percent of high school boys have already had sexual intercourse. And while the teenage pregnancy rate has been dropping in recent years, the main cause has not been increased celibacy, but the use of more effective birth control, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
The problem with abstinence-only is not that it promotes abstinence, but that it's anti-birth-control. A Columbia University study in 2000 found that while adolescent pledges to remain virgins until marriage delayed the age of first intercourse briefly, when the pledgers did have sex they were less likely than non-pledgers to use birth control.
And a congressional study done last year found that abstinence-only programs were rife with misinformation: teaching students that condoms don't help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, that legal abortions lead to sterility and to premature births. They also promote sexual stereotypes about boys and girls.
Frankly, I'm less worried about the fact that a 17-year-old girl has sex with her boyfriend than I am about whether she has thought the decision through carefully, has chosen a caring partner, and is using a dependable form of birth control.
The problem with the Bush administration's approach is that it's practicing faith-based medicine, and one of the results is that 900,000 teenagers still get pregnant every year.
Groups like the academy need to keep telling the truth until the message sticks, and until science and sound social policy begin to trump politics.
Sheryl McCarthy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org