Archive for Friday, November 26, 2004

Abstinence education a Bush priority

November 26, 2004

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— President Bush's re-election ensures that more federal money will flow to abstinence education that precludes discussion of birth control, even as the administration awaits evidence that the approach gets kids to refrain from sex.

Congress last weekend included more than $131 million for abstinence programs in a $388 billion spending bill, an increase of $30 million but about $100 million less than Bush requested. Meanwhile, a national evaluation of abstinence programs has been delayed, with a final report not expected until 2006.

Ten state evaluations, compiled by a group that opposes abstinence-only education, showed little change in teens' behavior since the start of abstinence programs in 1997.

The president has been a strong proponent of school-based sexual education that focuses on abstinence but does not include instruction on safe sex.

"We don't need a study, if I remember my biology correctly, to show us that those people who are sexually abstinent have a zero chance of becoming pregnant or getting someone pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted disease," said Wade Horn, the assistant secretary of health and human services in charge of federal abstinence funding.

Those who say schools also should be teaching youths how to use contraceptives say Horn's argument ignores reality. Surveys indicate that roughly 50 percent of teens say they have sex before they leave high school. While the nation's teenage pregnancy rate is declining, young people ages 15-24 account for about half the new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States each year.

Teaching only about abstinence means students will be less able to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, say supporters of comprehensive sexual education.

"The only 100 percent way to avoid a car collision is not to drive, but the federal government sure does a lot of advocacy for safety belts," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a group that promotes education about birth control and condom use.

The argument about sexual education has raged for years, between those who say teaching about sex promotes promiscuity and those who say teens will make better choices if they are fully informed.

The "abstinence-only" initiative was part of the 1996 welfare law. Because programs are so young, there has been little conclusive research about their effectiveness. Independent researchers said in 2002 there was no reliable evidence whether these programs were effective in reducing teen sex, pregnancy or the transmission of disease.

The same team has been updating its findings for the Department of Health and Humans Services. A second report was supposed to be released earlier this year, but has been pushed back, said HHS spokesman Bill Pierce. The final installation is expected in 2006.

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