When it comes to federal grants for abstinence education, the question at this point is not why 22 states are spurning them, but why 28 are still accepting them. After 12 years of this program, the evidence is clear that it doesn’t work. That makes it a waste of money — not only on the part of the federal government ($50 million this year, and more than $1.5 billion overall), but on the part of the states, which must provide a 75 percent match.
Teen sex is a complicated issue, as demonstrated by the recent case in Gloucester, Mass., where 17 teenage girls may or may not have made a pact to get pregnant. It is at once a biological urge, a rite of passage, a way of feeling accepted, important or loved.
That’s not to say it should be encouraged. Pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, are serious problems, and there’s no denying that for these reasons, as well as psychological, emotional and economic ones, young people are better off waiting to have sex. They need to hear that message — and they do as part of most comprehensive sex education programs, including Planned Parenthood’s. But they also need to know how their bodies work, and how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs if they do have sex — and the reality is that many will, regardless of what they are told. It is silly, and dangerous, to pretend otherwise.
But that is what abstinence-only sex education (the only kind this federal program allows) does. It is a faith-based approach to sex education, an ideological fantasy pushed by people who, because they believe kids shouldn’t have sex, think they won’t if we only wish hard enough and preach to them that they shouldn’t.
The futility of this approach can be seen in a comprehensive, multiyear study released last year by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. It showed that kids who had participated in a wide variety of such programs were no less likely to stay abstinent than others; they started having sex at the same age, with the same frequency and same number of partners. Previous studies had reached similar findings, even with kids who had taken a vow to remain chaste until marriage.
New York state withdrew from the program last year, redirecting its share of the money to comprehensive sex ed programs — where it should have gone all along. Two more states, Iowa and Arizona, have announced they will drop out later this year. Congress should stop giving others the choice. It should abolish the program.