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Abstinence-Only Education: The Good and the Bad

The high-profile pregnancy of Bristol Palin—GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s seventeen-year-old daughter—has catapulted the combustible topic of sex education to the forefront of our national conversation. 

When an issue involves teenagers and sex there will always be controversy and emotion. But how should our schools handle this lightning rod of a topic? Maybe teaching abstinence is the right course of action. Maybe abstinence-only proponents are right when they say: “What young people need today is less sex education and more love education.”

Then again, is abstinence realistic? Will our children have sex whether we like it or not? Maybe they need all the right, candid information to have sex safely. Maybe abstinence and contraceptives are complimentary—not contradictory strategies.

Who is right?

Opposing Views knew this would make a hotly contested debate between its experts, and it hasn’t disappointed.

The American Public Health Association says it isn’t against abstinence education—it just isn’t enough. The APHA points out there is no “credible evidence [that abstinence-only programs] significantly delay sexual initiation or reduce the frequency of sexual intercourse.”

But proponents of abstinence-only say that simply isn’t true. Lifeway Christian Resources highlights one study that says abstinence education cut the rate of sexual activity in half and another report that claims, “Sixteen out of twenty-one studies of abstinence education found youth who received abstinence education had lower rates of sexual activity when compared to youth who did not receive abstinence training.”

While both sides agree teenage pregnancy rates are down dramatically since 1990, they cannot agree over how we got there. Pointing to numbers from the Center for Disease Control, Teen Aid says the drop is due to abstinence. But The National Campaign says it’s not so easy to point to one reason: “Researchers … agree that some combination of less sex activity and more contraceptive use have contributed to the overall decline in early pregnancy and childbearing.”


As a result, abstinence-only critics believe teaching about contraceptives should be a vital part of any sex education program. In addition to reducing teen pregnancy, contraceptives also cut down on the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. So sex education must “teach adolescents about contraceptives and barrier methods to reduce their risks.”

 

Pro-abstinence advocates have an answer. They say look to the 1970s and 80s, when “comprehensive contraception education” was in vogue. At the same time, “The rise of STDs and out-of-wedlock pregnancy were phenomenal.” They insist abstinence is the only real way to prevent pregnancy and STDs. In addition, there is another practical reason for abstinence: It will save our nation money, and lots of it. Lifeway says teenagers who give birth cost taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year. And when you add in aid to disadvantaged teen moms, that figure jumps upwards of $19 billion.

While those exact numbers are a source of controversy, at a time when 60 percent of students will have sex before they graduate from high school, The National Campaign says there is a “clear national consensus” that teens should be given information about contraceptives.

“Teen pregnancy and sexual activity is rooted in broad social phenomena, such as popular culture, the images portrayed in the entertainment media, and the values articulated by parents and other adults,” The National Campaign continues. “Sex education and community programs alone simply cannot counter these powerful forces.”

What do you think? Read more expert opinions and join the debate at OpposingViews.

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