Politics & Policy

Aborting Abstinence

A push to kill.

Each year, more than three million teenagers contract a sexually transmitted disease. In addition to the threat of disease and pregnancy, sexually active teens are three times more likely than teens who aren’t sexually active to become depressed and to attempt suicide.

Clearly, it’s in society’s interest to discourage teen sex. Teens themselves realize this: According to a Zogby poll, more than 90 percent of them say that society should teach kids to abstain from sex until they have, at least, finished high school. Parents want a stronger message: Almost nine in 10 want schools to teach youth to abstain from sex until they’re married or in an adult relationship that is close to marriage.

Given the almost universal popularity of abstinence education, it seems strange that Senator Max Baucus (D., Mont.) soon will introduce legislation that would effectively abolish federal abstinence-education programs. These programs supply nearly all the governmental support for teaching abstinence in U.S. schools.

The Baucus anti-abstinence plan would take federal funds that are devoted to teaching abstinence and turn them over to state public-health bureaucracies to spend as they will. Since these bureaucracies have been wedded for decades to “safe sex” and fiercely opposed to teaching abstinence, the implications of this change are obvious.

“If the goal is to remove abstinence from classrooms across the country, the Baucus plan will do it,” says Leslee Unruh, president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, an umbrella group that includes nearly all abstinence educators in the U.S.

Government officials now spend at least $12 promoting contraception for each $1 they spend teaching abstinence. Virtually every teen in the U.S. receives classroom instruction about contraception. But programs that seriously urge youth to delay sexual activity are rare. And even students who are taught about abstinence almost always are taught about contraception as well, through a biology or health class.

If contraception is already taught in nearly every school, and condom promotion gets nearly all the government funds, why the push to kill the limited funds for abstinence?

The answer lies with certain interest groups that often exert heavy influence on the decisions made by key lawmakers. The two main groups leading the crusade for the Baucus plan and against abstinence are Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).

SIECUS has a history of promoting the far boundaries of sexual permissiveness. One article published in its “SIECUS Report” periodical actually encouraged society to overturn the “taboo” against sex among nine-year-olds. The article also asked readers to consider whether society should arrange for “services of prostitutes for older teenage children who are not in a position to seek out sexual partners themselves.” Another “SIECUS Report” article urged society to reexamine the “social taboo” against incest, suggesting that many of the girls victimized by it are, “in the truest sense of the word their father’s lovers.” Elsewhere, SIECUS argues that sex educators have unfairly neglected the pleasurable aspects of teen sex and should learn to “advocate good sex for teens.”

Advocates for Youth is a close ally of SIECUS. Both groups vigorously oppose abstinence education and promote something they call “comprehensive sex ed.” Not surprisingly, a review of “comprehensive” programs reveals that they trample on parental and social values. Far from encouraging young people to wait until they’re older before having sex, they send the message that it’s OK for teens to have sex as long as they use condoms. Only 7 percent of parents approve of that message.

Some of the content in these programs borders on pornography. One heavily promoted curriculum, “Be Proud! Be Responsible!,” teaches high-school students to: “… brainstorm ways to increase spontaneity and the likelihood that they’ll use condoms … Examples: … Eroticize condom use with partner … Use condoms as a method of foreplay … Think up a sexual fantasy using condoms … Act sexy/sensual when putting the condom on … Hide [it] on your body and ask your partner to find it … Wrap them as a present and give them to your partner before a romantic dinner … Tease each other manually while putting on the condom.”

The goal of SIECUS and Advocates for Youth is to put this type of curriculum in every classroom nationwide. The first step? Eliminate abstinence programs that send the opposite message.

It’s a mystery why such off-the-wall groups should have any influence over federal lawmakers. But one thing’s clear: Their radical agenda is diametrically opposed to what parents and teens say they want in classroom sex education.

Robert Rector is a senior research fellow in domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation,


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