01 September 2008

Debating the Wisdom of Abstinence-Only Sexuality Education

It may be time for us as a nation to examine the public health outcomes and public policy impact of our nation's decision to federally funded "abstinence-only" sexuality education to the exclusion of other types of sexuality education in our schools and our wider society.

There are two recent news stories that I saw on Google News that are related to our public policy decision on this.

One story is concerned with the personal life of Gov. Palin's oldest daughter:
Gov. Palin Says Her Unmarried 17-Year-Old Daughter Is Pregnant
"We have been blessed with five wonderful children who we love with all our heart and mean everything to us," reads the statement from Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband Todd.

"Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned," they continued, referring to their 17-year-old daughter. "As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support.

The Palins said that "Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family.
The second story deals with the public policy position that Gov. Palin has taken regarding "abstinence-only" sexuality education:
Palin backed abstinence education
(CNN) – Sarah Palin, who announced on Monday that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant, indicated during her run for Alaska governor that she was a firm supporter of abstinence-only education in schools.

In a 2006 Eagle Forum questionnaire, Palin indicated that she supported funding abstinence-until-marriage education programs instead of teaching sex-education programs.

"Explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support," Palin wrote in the conservative group’s questionnaire.
However, we do know that the comprehensive sexuality education programs used in Western Europe do have a better public health and public policy outcomes in comparison with the United States. However, this isn't the type of sexuality education that Gov. Palin or Sen. McCain supports.

Here are a few graphs from the Advocates for Youth "Adolescent Sexual Health in Europe and the U.S.—Why the Difference?" fact sheet:

If the teen pregnancy, teen abortion, and teen sexually-transmitted infection rates in the US were the same as the Netherlands, we would have 657,000 fewer teen pregnancies, 441,000 fewer teen births, and 215,000 fewer teen abortions. It would also save the taxpayers $921 million each year (in 1997 dollars).

Unplanned pregnancy is a something that can be prevented. It's not something that "just happens" and it doesn't take "rocket science" to prevent it.

Our Western European cousins have an excellent track record with promoting healthy sexual decision-making in their teens. This is something that we could do in the US if we want to.

As Unitarian Universalists working in partnership with the United Church of Christ, our gift to the wider world is our excellent "Our Whole Lives" lifespan series of comprehensive sexuality education curricula.


Joel Monka said...

As CC points out , Bristol *DID* get a comprehensive sexual education, and got pregnant anyway. Not a good hook to hang this post on.

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel -- not so fast here.

I'm thinking that CC is misinterpreting the Alaska law in terms of what it requires and what it simply allows local schools to do.

Yes -- it does sound less bad than my state's laws (Louisiana) and other "red state" laws covering sexuality education.

The schools in Alaska can provide comprehensive sexuality education.

But they don't mandate comprehensive sexuality education in public schools.

I did check the SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) web site. SIECUS also has a UU connection -- the former president of this organization is now a UU minister (Rev. Debra Haffner).

Here's the link to the SIECUS web site:


"Alaska Sexuality Education Law and Policy

Alaska does not have a law that governs sexuality education; therefore, schools are not required to teach sexuality or sexually transmitted disease (STD) education. However, 'the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development’s health education team is committed to providing teachers and school staff within the state of Alaska with current and scientifically sound research in health education and violence and disease prevention.' The Department endorses 'Programs that Work,' a list compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), though it 'does not endorse specific curricula, but seeks to provide districts with the most up-to-date materials and research-based programs so schools can evaluate what best meets the needs of their student population.'"

Furthermore, SIECUS web site does say that a recent legislation does allow for:

" ... parents are provided the opportunity to remove their children from sexuality education courses ... "

So even if the schools did provide programs comparable to the "Our Whole Lives" program, that doesn't guarantee that Gov. Palin's daughter attended these classes.