October 14, 2004 | Commentary on Sex Education and Abstinence
For many students around the country, textbooks aren't exactly a source of excitement. But for many Texas parents, they're the source of a brewing controversy. And the debate it has touched off could have repercussions nationwide.
The controversy concerns the updating of health textbooks -- in particular, the chapters dealing with sex education. The Texas board of education has held two hearings to help it decide how to vote on Nov. 5, when board members will rule on whether to replace health textbooks now in circulation with updated texts, beginning in the 2005 school year.
The stakes are high. Texas is the country's second-largest buyer of textbooks (after California), and publishing companies often market the books that Texas adopts to the other 49 states.
The updated texts could be required to include information on abstinence as well as medically accurate information on sex education. That means facts on the ineffectiveness of condoms and other forms of contraception in preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy. The current textbooks fail to explain that abstinence is the only 100-percent effective method to prevent STDs and pregnancy.
Nationwide, 10 scientific studies prove that abstinence education reduces teen sexual activity and dramatically decreases out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Texas has proven to be a leader in updating its curriculum guidelines to reflect the effectiveness of the abstinence message. State officials now require high-school health texts to "analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods." On Nov. 5, the board of education will determine whether the four health texts up for consideration meet this and other requirements.
Of course, certain contraception-promotion advocates (such as Planned Parenthood) claim the texts don't have enough information about condoms. They say abstinence education is dangerous and could lead to more pregnancies and STDs.
They also claim the new textbooks wouldn't contain any information on contraception. But that's misleading. Such information would be included in the teacher's manuals and in separate student supplements, so teachers would have the flexibility to raise sensitive topics such as contraception at the appropriate time.
The danger of early sexual activity is much greater than the supposed dangers of abstinence education. It leads to higher levels of child and maternal poverty, elevates the risk of STDs and often leaves teenage girls depressed, even suicidal. It also contributes to marital failure in adulthood.
Most sexually active teens say they wish they had waited until they were older before engaging in sexual activity. Nearly two-thirds of sexually active teens express regret about their initial sexual activity.
Unfortunately, nearly all government-funded comprehensive sex-ed courses -- many of which are misleadingly called "abstinence-plus" programs -- contain little, if any, reference to abstinence. They may mention it briefly, but it's often presented as something that (wink, wink) kids in the "real world" will ignore.
Far worse, though, is what some of these comprehensive sex education programs do contain: Explicit demonstrations of contraceptive use -- especially condoms -- and direct encouragement to experiment sexually. Such programs contain little or no encouragement whatsoever for teens to delay sexual activity until they're older.
A recent Zogby poll found that three out of every four parents disapproved or strongly disapproved of "abstinence-plus" curricula. About the same number say they want their children to receive an authentic abstinence education. An overwhelming 91 percent say they want their teens taught that sex is best when it is linked to love, intimacy and commitment -- qualities most likely to occur in a faithful marriage.
In general, abstinence education curricula provide valuable character education, relationship education, marriage preparedness, refusal skills, action and consequence education, parent-teen communication skills, and factual information on STDs and the ineffectiveness of condoms. Contrary to the claims of abstinence critics, most schools that use an abstinence curriculum still teach basic information about contraception, but they teach it in a different class so they won't undermine the message of abstinence. The vast majority of parents strongly support this approach.
The Texas health education guidelines are a welcome change from the messages of promiscuity and irresponsibility our teenagers have been getting for the last three decades. Many educators and state legislators have finally decided to provide what parents clearly say they want. If those voices are heard, next year's students will learn that true abstinence is the best policy.
Melissa Pardue is the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Fellow in Social Welfare Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire