Sunday, December 02, 2007

It’s time to cut abstinent only sex (mis)education funding

Congress included in its spending legislation last summer increased funding for the Community Based Abstinent Education (CBAE) program. The House Appropriations subcommittee for Labor and Health & Human Services included the program as part of a compromise with Republican members. The deal disappointed many voters who believed the new Democratic majority would end the discredited program.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs censor information about birth control and the health benefits of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Abstinence-only sex education emphasizes complete abstinence from sex until marriage. Discussion of contraceptives is restricted to their failure rate.

Philosophically, the bottom line of the abstinence only education approach is that knowledge is bad and ignorance is necessary for the preservation of innocence. This line of thinking simply runs counter to the Enlightenment concept that knowledge is power. Abstinence only education is not education; it is indoctrination…that doesn’t work. Sexual abstinence for teenagers is desirable but the reality is significant numbers of teens are sexually active and need to know how to protect themselves and their partners. Regardless of whether they are sexually active or not they need to know what is going on with their bodies and the changes brought on by puberty. And assuming they remain abstinent until marriage, they still need the knowledge of how to have a fulfilling and safe sexual relationship with their spouse. Common decency demands comprehensive sex education for our kids, not out-and-out quackery and barely disguised religious dogma.

Politics being politics, the merits of the discredited program have far less to do with its place in the current Congressional spending bill than back room wheeling and dealing. But there may still be hope.

The New York Times has an excellent proposal. President Bush vetoed the Congressional spending bill as too expensive. If cuts need to be made then let’s start with federally funding absence only sex education. The Times editorial:
President Bush’s veto of Congress’s main social spending bill has Democratic leaders looking for places to make trims to satisfy the president’s sudden zeal for fiscal discipline. A small, but sensible, place to begin would be to eliminate the bill’s $28 million increase for one of Mr. Bush’s signature boondoggles — abstinence-only sex education.

Federal government spending on highly restrictive abstinence-only sex education has ballooned under President Bush, while evidence of the program’s danger as a public health strategy has continued to mount.

Last April, a Congressionally mandated evaluation found that students who received abstinence instruction in elementary and middle school were just as likely to have sex in the following years as students who did not get such instruction.

States are catching on. Last month, Virginia became the 14th state to reject federal grant money for abstinence-only sex education to pursue the comprehensive approach supported by science and most Americans. That approach encourages abstinence but also arms young people with information about sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptives and pregnancy.

Expectations that the new Democratic Congress would confront the abstinence-only hoax have proved unfounded. Instead of cutting support, or at least ditching outrageous rules that restrict information about condoms and contraception, the vetoed spending plan actually increased money for faith-based and other groups offering abstinence education programs above the wasteful $113 million allotted for the current fiscal year.

The weak link is the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposes the administration’s ineffective abstinence-only approach. But she seems to have ceded the issue to Representative David Obey, the House Appropriations chairman, who continues to insist on using it as bait for Republican votes on a budget compromise. Forgoing principle failed to produce a veto-proof majority for the spending bill the first time. Ms. Pelosi needs to reconsider whether expanding a discredited sex education program should be on the rather meager list of achievements of the first Democratic Congress in a decade.

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