Bush Administration’s ‘Controversial’ Abstinence-Only Education Initiative ‘Catching On,’ New York Times Reports
The Bush administration's "controversial" abstinence-only education initiative is "catching on, if only because there is more federal money available for it," the New York Times reports in a profile of the debate surrounding federal funding of sex education. A recent report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that 23% of secondary school teachers say they do not discuss any method other than abstinence as a way to avoid pregnancy, compared to only 2% of teachers in 1988. Federal health officials say that there is "intense" competition for funding for abstinence-only education programs. Of 360 recent applications for federal abstinence grants, 173 were approved and 53 received financing. Abstinence-only education programs have been gaining in popularity since the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which allocated $50 million annually over the course of five years for programs that promote abstinence and do not discuss contraception. In his fiscal year 2003 budget, President Bush has sought to renew this funding at the same rate for next year and has also proposed increasing overall federal funding for abstinence-only education by $33 million. Bush's budget proposal would boost annual federal spending for abstinence education to $135 million, a level that is equal to the amount of money the federal government spends on services that provide contraceptives to teens. Several lawmakers, however, are seeking to either decrease federal funding for abstinence-only programs or boost spending on comprehensive sex education programs, which discuss abstinence but also include information about contraception. Reps. James Greenwood (R-Pa.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) have proposed legislation (HR 3469) that would increase funding for comprehensive sex education programs by $100 million annually (Stolberg, New York Times, 2/28). Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) has introduced a welfare reform bill (HR 3113) that would eliminate the $50 million in abstinence funding contained in the 1996 welfare legislation (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 2/26).
But Do They Work?
Critics of abstinence-only education programs say that there is "no scientific evidence" that the programs reduce rates of sexual activity among teens (New York Times, 2/28). But Bush has often expressed support for the programs, stating yesterday in Charlotte, N.C., that abstinence "works every time when it comes to making sure somebody may not have an unwanted child or someone picks up sexually transmitted disease." He added, "We ought not to assume that our culture is automatically going to lead a child to defy an abstinence education program. We ought to try it" (White House release, 2/27). According to the CDC, two-thirds of U.S. youth have had sexual intercourse by the time they graduate from high school, and each year 25% of sexually active teens contract an STD. The CDC has identified eight programs that have been shown to reduce teen pregnancy and STD infection, including one that "stresses abstinence," Dr. Lloyd Kolbe, director of the CDC's division of school and adolescent health, said. He added that the abstinence-focused program increased condom use and delayed the onset of sexual activity among teens. A "rigorous" federally funded study of abstinence-only education programs is currently underway but will not be completed until 2005. However, preliminary data should be available next year (New York Times, 2/28).
Elders Advocates Straight Talk on Sex
There is "no scientific basis that abstinence-only education is effective," and the U.S. government should promote comprehensive sex education in order to bring down the rates of teen pregnancy and STD infection, former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders writes in a Newsday op-ed. Elders notes that four million of the 15 million people in the United States who contract an STD each year are teens, and births to teens represent 13% of all U.S. births. She writes, "There are about 12 million problems with [abstinence-only education] -- 12 million being the number of sexually active teens in the country who are 19 or younger." Stating that "vows of abstinence break more easily than latex condoms," Elders says that the government needs to give young people information on contraception. "No sexuality education program has ever been found to increase sexual activity or to encourage students to engage in intercourse at earlier ages. In fact, comprehensive sexuality education delays first intercourse, reduces the risk of teenage pregnancy and reduces the number of sexual partners," Elders says. To decrease STD transmission and pregnancy among youth, Elders recommends greater funding for family planning and comprehensive sex education for students from kingergarten through high school. "We all support abstinence, but abstinence needs a companion piece -- honest, accurate information about contraception and the prevention of STDs and HIV," she concludes (Elders, Newsday, 2/28).
Encourage Both Abstinence and Condom Use
Health officials must promote both abstinence and condom use if they want to stem the spread of HIV, because the "just say no" approach "doesn't work," a South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial states. The editorial states that the Bush administration "needs to pay more attention to advisers like [Secretary of State Colin] Powell," who has advocated condom use as a way to prevent STD transmission (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2/28).