Abstinence-Only Education Is Back

After weeks of railing against the price tag of health-care reform, Senate Republicans managed to bond over pumping up the budget for one aspect of health-care reform yesterday: abstinence-only education. Proposed by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the amendment reinstates $50 million in funding for abstinence-only education that President Obama had previously removed in his budget proposal earlier this year. Committee Republicans were joined by Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Kent Conrad in voting up the measure, which passed 12-11.

I've been trying to think of a measured way to riff on this, but instead I'll be frank. It's an absolute waste of money. This is the sort of thing Republicans usually wail about—the federal government propping up a program where there is no evidence that said program works. Indeed, there's a mounting body of evidence that abstinence-only education is a categorical failure. Just this past Sunday, the Austin American Statesman reported that school districts in Texas are abandoning abstinence-only education. "More government money has been spent on the cause of sexual abstinence in Texas than any other state, but it still has the third-highest teen birthrate in the country and the highest percentage of teen mothers giving birth more than once," the Statesman reports. Many of the schools are shifting to so-called "abstinence-plus" programs, which teach abstinence within a comprehensive sex-education program.

In 2007 a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that girls who receive comprehensive sex education were 50 percent less likely to become pregnant than those who receive abstinence-only education. Also, that year a comprehensive national study, authorized by Congress, that monitored 2,000 children over several years found that abstinence-only education doesn't decrease the chances that teenagers will have sex. "This is the first study with a solid, experimental design, the first with adequate numbers and long-term follow-up, the first to measure behavior and not just intent. On every measure, the effectiveness of the [abstinence-only] programs was flat," Sarah Brown, the executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, told The Washington Post at the time.   

Let's face it. Teenagers are going to have sex. They always have; they always will. Sure, there will be a decent number of teens who choose to abstain and they should feel supported in that decision, but there will still be a large chunk of teenagers doing the dirty. Making them stop is a fool's errand. It's about as likely a seeing the pope in a Speedo. It's like asking the queen to declare her hatred for corgis. It's not going to happen. Sex-education policies should take into account this basic reality and tailor programs that broadly educate teens about their choices, abstinence included. Policies should be set up to work. Anything else is just pointless moralizing.