The abstinence-only lie

January 25, 2008

Jen Roesch argues that the rise in teen pregnancies is tied to the right wing's family values agenda.

LAST MONTH, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that teen pregnancy rates had risen for the first time in 14 years. One week after this announcement, 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears--star of the Nickolodeon hit Zoey 101 and sister of singer Britney Spears--announced that she was three months pregnant.

The right-wing family values brigade was quick to portray Spears' high-profile pregnancy as evidence of a "culture of permissiveness" that was fueling high rates of teen sex, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. The airwaves immediately filled with commentators concerned that impressionable "tweeners" would think it was cool to get pregnant.

Dr. Miriam Grossman, of the pro-family-values Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, commented, "No one should be surprised. This incident with Jamie Lynn should be looked at as a logical consequence of the type of education and guidance that we give to young people these days--that sexuality is part of their lives at any age."

In fact, Spears' statement that she was "absolutely shocked" she could have become pregnant should tell us much more about the manufactured ignorance about sex and birth control that is being forced on American teenagers.

CULTURAL CONSERVATIVES responded to the CDC report by arguing that U.S. society has become too accepting of teenage sexuality. "Like casual drug use in the '60s, America's current culture has accepted casual and 'protected' sex as the norm," Dr. Gary Rose, chief executive of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health told the Moonie-owned Washington Times. "There is a critical need for behavior modification--risk avoidance, not mere risk reduction--if these trends are to reverse."

Nothing could be further from the truth. The rise in teen pregnancy rates is much more likely the result of an unprecedented expansion of abstinence-only programs in schools.

Abstinence-only education was first written into the 1996 welfare reform bill signed into law by Bill Clinton. The law includes an extremely restrictive eight-point definition stipulating, among other things, that teenagers must be taught that abstinence is the only acceptable behavior outside of marriage at any age and premarital sex can have harmful physical and psychological consequences, and that birth control can only be mentioned in relation to its failure rates.

When George Bush took office, he dramatically expanded funding for abstinence-only education, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars not only to states but to faith-based community organizations led by the Christian Right. Abstinence-only education got $176 million in funding for fiscal year 2007; such programs have received over $1 billion in funding since their inception.

The impact on teenagers has been devastating. With their complete lack of medical or scientific basis as well as a willful ignorance of teenage sexuality, these programs are aimed at scaring and bullying teens into abstinence.

A congressional report commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman reviewed 13 curriculum materials used in states across the country and found the following examples of false and misleading information:

Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse.

Touching a person's genitals can result in pregnancy; mutual masturbation can cause pregnancy.

HIV can be transmitted by tears and sweat, and 50 percent of gay teens have AIDS.

A pregnancy occurs one out of every seven times that couples use condoms.

A 43-day-old fetus is a "thinking person."

Five to ten percent of women will never again be pregnant after having a legal abortion.

Suicide is a consequence of premarital sex.

The consequences of this misinformation has been very real.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation claimed that most young women who became pregnant were properly educated about contraception, and just wanted to have babies. In reality, the statistics show that just over 50 percent of sexually active males and 60 percent of sexually active females had received any education in birth control methods before they first had sex.

Abstinence-only education programs in schools are reinforced by a whole network of Christian family values advocates. Many of their activities seem to seek a return to an era before the women's liberation movement--an era when women were seen as property.

For example, one focus for abstinence proponents has been "purity balls." At these balls, daughters pledge to maintain their virginity until marriage, while fathers promise to protect their "purity." The girl then gives her father a ring or cross as a symbol of their virtue, which he is supposed to give to her husband on her wedding day.

NUMEROUS STUDIES show that abstinence-only education is ineffective and sometimes harmful.

When teen pregnancy rates were still declining, advocates of abstinence-only programs tried to claim credit. But a Columbia University and Guttmacher Institute study found that 86 percent of the decline was attributable to increased use and effectiveness of birth control, while only 14 percent could be attributed to teens delaying sex. A separate congressionally mandated study found that teens in abstinence-only programs were just as likely to have sex, initiated sex at the same age, and had a similar number of sexual partners.

Of the one in six teenage girls who took a chastity pledge, 88 percent broke their vow before marriage, many within a few years. And girls who had taken chastity pledges were less likely to use condoms, and less likely to seek testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

The abstinence-only approach is rooted in a denial of the reality of teenage sexuality. By the age of 19, 70 percent of teenagers have become sexually active. Refusing to face this reality means that teenagers, especially young women, are ill-equipped to take responsibility for their own sexual choices and reproductive health.

In Europe, teenagers become sexually active in equal numbers as in the U.S., but contraception and comprehensive sexual education are widely provided. In addition, there is little societal pressure to remain abstinent. This goes a long way to explaining why the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. is dramatically higher.

The rise of abstinence-only education is part and parcel of a right-wing family values backlash that has attempted to roll back reproductive health choices for women.

When teenage girls do become pregnant, they are faced with severe restrictions on their access to abortion. Thirty-four states have parental consent or notification laws. Between 2001 and 2005, more than $30 million in federal funds was given to "pregnancy crisis centers"--anti-abortion clinics that provide misleading information about abortion. In 23 states, state-mandated pre-abortion counseling exaggerates the physical and mental health risks of abortion--for example, asserting a link between abortion and breast cancer, or claiming that women who have abortions may have suicidal thoughts.

This attack on abortion has been accompanied by a cultural backlash as well. Abortion is almost never portrayed on television or in film as a viable choice. Three recent movies center on women who decide to carry unintended pregnancies to term--including a teenager who gives the baby up for adoption. Those who raise abortion as an option are portrayed as callous and indifferent.

The right wing would have us believe that the recent rise in teen pregnancy rates is the result of an overly permissive society and proves the need for more focus on abstinence. In reality, it is just one more sign of the damage being done to teenagers and women in the name of family values.

Fourteen states have already refused federal funding for abstinence-only education, and 82 percent of Americans support comprehensive sex education. It's well past time to reverse the backlash.

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