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Another Undead Conservative Idea
A scientific study has proven that abstinence education works.


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Mona Charen

Barack Obama assumed the presidency determined not just to promote certain policies but to tidy up our minds as well. Some things we’d been saving, like conservative ideas on national defense and such, would have to go. Those were “the failed policies of the past,” and he would not tolerate people clinging to them. Obama enthusiast and New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus thought he was writing an epitaph when he published The Death of Conservatism six months ago.

But we have not cooperated. More to the point, the facts have not cooperated. That $787 billion stimulus that was guaranteed to keep unemployment at 8 percent or less is now regarded by 75 percent of Americans as a corrupt flop. Seventy-one percent say underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been handed over to the military. And 58 percent say he should have been waterboarded.

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Now we learn from a study in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that another prematurely buried conservative idea, abstinence education, works very well indeed.

The Obama administration had disdained and defunded abstinence education in favor of “evidence-based” programs to prevent teen pregnancy. (Note the assumption that liberal ideas are founded on evidence whereas conservative ideas spring from prejudice, ignorance, or downright orneriness.) No single study settles things, but this one, conducted by an African-American professor at the University of Pennsylvania, will be hard to ignore.

Between 2001 and 2004, John B. Jemmott III and his colleagues studied 662 African-American sixth- and seventh-graders (average age 12). The kids were randomly assigned to one of four programs. The first emphasized abstinence and included role-playing methods to avoid sex. The second combined an abstinence message with information about condoms. The third focused solely on condom use, and the fourth (the control group) was taught general health information. 

Over the course of the next two years, about half of the kids who received the condom instruction and half of the control group were having sex. Forty-two percent of those who got the combination class were sexually active, but only 33 percent of the abstinence-only group were having sex. Additionally, and this confounds one of the myths of the condom pushers, the study found no difference in condom use among the four groups of students who did engage in sex. “I think we’ve written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence,” Jemmott told the Washington Post. “Our study shows this could be one approach that could be used.”

Elayne Bennett, founder of the Best Friends program, is delighted that the Jemmott research reinforces her experience with, mostly, African-American adolescent girls. Offering a mixed program of mentoring, dance, music, and role-playing, Best Friends and its new spin-off for boys, Best Men, has had two decades of success in helping kids abstain from sex, drugs, and alcohol until they graduate from high school. She has found that the kids desperately want someone to tell them it’s okay to postpone sex. It’s a commentary on our times, but there it is — we need special programs to give kids permission to say no.

“The opponents,” Bennett notes, “have popularized three words, ‘abstinence doesn’t work.’” But her program and others like it have excellent track records. Every previous study showing the effectiveness of abstinence programs has been picked apart for one trivial flaw or another, but this new research seems airtight.

People usually form their opinions first and look only for evidence that supports their prejudices. That’s another reason the Jemmott research deserves respect. He didn’t conduct his research to support abstinence education. He’s simply reporting on what works.

It’s always been an open question whether supporters of so-called “comprehensive sex ed,” with its heavy emphasis on “safe sex” and condoms, actually believe in abstinence at all. They always argued that “no matter what we say, the kids are going to have sex anyway, so they might as well be safe.” But they never adopted that logic with, say, cigarettes. They didn’t lobby for mandatory filters on the grounds that the kids were going to smoke willy-nilly.

Well, this will be a test. The Obama administration has vowed to fund “evidence-based” programs. Will they reverse their decision to completely defund abstinence ed?

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2010 Creators Syndicate, Inc.



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