The problem of abstinence-only ed

Heather Saunders Estes
Planned Parenthood: Shasta-Diablo

One of my favorite cartoons is almost 20 years old. It shows two women, one standing in front of a desk with a Planned Parenthood sign and the other, presumably a Planned Parenthood employee, sitting behind the desk. The standing woman has her hands on her hips and is saying, “I think sex education causes pregnancies.” And the woman behind the desk responds, “Right … and driver’s education causes accidents.”

I was reminded of this cartoon when I read the recently released congressional analysis of abstinence-only sex-education programs. This Dec. 2 report from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, reveals that the most popular federally funded abstinence-only sex-education curricula contain dangerous errors and misinformation on a wide range of important sexual and reproductive-health issues.

Examples of the outrageous inaccuracies include grossly underestimating the effectiveness of condoms and other contraceptives in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Another curriculum incorrectly lists exposure to someone else’s sweat and tears as risk factors for HIV transmission. Yet another claims that half of the gay male teens in the United States have tested positive for HIV.

This analysis of abstinence-only sex education programs is a very timely one, since the federal government will waste an astonishing $238 million for these programs in fiscal year 2005. And this amount is short of the $270 million for abstinence-only programs initially proposed by President Bush!

Fortunately, California is one of a very few states to refuse to accept this federal funding because we know that teens need to have access to the information that will help them make responsible choices. And California’s refusal to jump on the abstinence-only bandwagon has paid off. Our teen pregnancy rate has fallen by 40 percent over the last 10 years. This is the largest decrease of any state except Alaska.

It isn’t the “abstinence” we object to, it’s the “only.” Teaching abstinence should be a part of any responsible sex-ed program, but it is deeply irresponsible to leave out essential lifesaving information for those teens who are sexually active.

And although we know that 90 percent of parents want their teens to receive comprehensive, medically accurate sex education, many schools are failing to provide it. Do your children a favor: Find out what they are being taught about sex in their schools. Above all, make certain they are not receiving abstinence-only sex ed. Information that is wrong, too little or too late can have long-term and life-threatening consequences.