Among its many less-noticed accomplishments, this Administration has strangled funding for comprehensive sex education. Instead, it has thrown the immense weight of the US government behind abstinence-based education, an impractical ideological approach rooted in religious zealotry and a romantic notion of social mores that no longer exists for most young Americans. In 2005 and 2006, the Bush Administration spent $170 and $178 million, respectively, more than double the 2004 expenditure, much of it allocated to mostly conservative Christian organizations, to encourage children to refrain from sex without explaining the fundamentals of contraception and sexually-transmitted disease (STD). In 2004, a Minority Staff Special Investigations report prepared at the request of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) found that more than 80 percent of federally funded abstinence programs contain false or misleading information about sex and reproductive health.
When, earlier this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of the first national study of four STDs in teenage girls, the responses from the different sides of the ideological spectrum were profoundly at odds. The study randomly chose 893 teenage girls ages 14-19. In the 96 percent who agreed, a vaginal swab was obtained that was then tested for human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, genital herpes and trichomoniasis, a common parasite. Each of these diseases can have serious health consequences.
The study found that one in four teenage girls had at least one of the diseases. One in seven, or 15 percent, had more than one. In African-American girls, the prevalence was one in two. Among white girls, it was one in five.
Extrapolating from the data, the CDC’s Dr. Sara Forhan, who led the study, said that 3.2 million American teenage girls probably have one or more of these STDs. Of course, this also means that a large number of teenage boys do as well.
The response from Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, was succinct and clear. She said the findings, “emphasize the need for real comprehensive sex education. The national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure and teenage girls are paying the real price.” (While I agree with her, I wish she had noted that boys pay a price as well. Contrary to the sentiments of Margaret Sanger, their wonderful founder, I’ve sometimes found that the contemporary Planned Parenthood message tends to be feminist rather than humanist.)
Instead of acknowledging that maybe their programs haven’t worked out so well, conservative groups have taken this news as an impetus to redouble their efforts to stem America’s moral decay. The Family Research Council’s Director of Women’s Health, Moira Gaul, declared “Only a risk-avoidance or sexual abstinence-until-marriage strategy will be effective in helping to reverse the current STD epidemic. While much of the medical and public health community pays lip service to prevention for our young people, these results continue to provide sad evidence that the focus is on facilitating high-risk behavior rather than true primary and even secondary prevention. Abstinence education offers an effective and holistic approach to protect our young people’s current and future health by teaching them necessary skills to build healthy relationships and providing accurate medical information concerning risks of sexual behavior.”
There is a stark reality here. Teens have always had sex, but there are irresistible cultural forces at work now that appear to have made sex more acceptable and common than ever before. We live in a highly mobile, media-rich, special interest-dominated society that relentlessly promotes sexual activity. A refusal to accept and respond to this set of circumstances by providing children with the knowledge and tools to come through it safely is tantamount to neglect.
The deeper question is simply whether we love our children enough to help them protect themselves.