Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Science Wars: Abstinence-only

Antheia alerted me to a rather shrill op-ed piece, entitled "Truly Making an Investment in Abstinence," which appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. This op-ed represents one of the flanks of the right-wing army leading a crusade to discredit science and scientific research. For a good read on politics, science and Bush Administration, read this report or visit this website.

What is insidious about these folks is that they go to battle in local school districts and scare parents with lies that their children are being taught how to have gay sex or something equally heinous. These scare tactics work to pressure school boards to adopt this pseudo-scientific, religious curriculum. What is frustrating is that they aren't the majority view, but they are the loudest. So, fight back!!

Judi McLane comes loaded for bear, leading off her piece with this opening paragraph:

"No need to look to surveys, polls or long-winded studies. Abstinence-only education works. How do we know? Because NARAL, Planned Parenthood and NOW have shifted into crisis mode to save the pro-abortion, pro-contraception and pro-promiscuity agenda. The "safe, legal, and rare" mantra has been reduced to flippant I Had an Abortion T-shirts and scare-tactic posters declaring the comeback of the chastity belt. These are frantic measures to cling to relevance as the rest of America goes in a different direction. The pro-choice cry has evolved into "Everyone is free to make choices regarding their sexual health as long as it's not abstinence." How's that for tolerance?"

McLane's best evidence for the effectiveness of abstinence only education is the reaction of NOW, NARAL and Planned Parenthood. What this reaction demonstrates--to my mind--is a reasonable reaction of outrage to a sex-ed policy that is bad, and full of lies. If I worked at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and heard that a group was teaching young people that you can contract the HIV virus through sweat or tears, I would be outraged and deeply concerned about the misinformation!

Check out this report from the House Committee on Government Reform. This report, which studied the curriculum used in Federally-funded programs, found that 80% of the abstinence-only curricula contain false, misleading, or distorted information. Five examples (taken from the report):

(1) Abstinence-only programs misrepresent the effectiveness of contraception, i.e. "condoms fail to prevent HIV approximately 31% of the time" or "the data does not support the claim that condoms prevent the spread of STDs"

(2) Abstince-only curricula contain false information about abortion, i.e. "5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile" "Premature birth, a major cause of mental retardation, is increased following the abortion of a first pregnancy . . ."

(3) Abstinence-only curricula blur line between science and religion, i.e. one curriculum calls a 43-day-old fetus a 'thinking person'

(4) Abstinence-only curricula treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact, i.e. women need "financial support" and men need "admiration," or, "women gauge their happiness and judge their success on their relationships. Men's happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments."

(5) Abstinence-only curricula contain scientific errors, i.e. one curriculum lists exposure to sweat and tears as risk factors for HIV transmission, or, another curriculum states that 'twenty-four chromosomes from the mother and twenty-four chromosomes for the father join to create this new individual"--PEOPLE the correct number is 23 chromosomes!

So, here are your tax dollars at work: spreading misinformation and outright lies.

McLane also suggests throughout her piece that pro-choice organizations are "for profit" : "It is clear that safe-sex supporters want our kids to be sexually active because, let's face it, promiscuity is darn good business." What a complete DISTORTION of reality--but hey, that is what these right-wing folks are trained to do. Abstinence-only education received about $170 million from the Bush Administration in the fiscal year of 2005 (while he was slashing funding to affordable housing, domestic violence agencies and the EPA). Planned Parenthood can only apply for those funds IF it promises to keep its mouth shut about any other type of contraception (yep, that's right, abstinence-only is a form of contraception and not all that effective!).

So, while McLane wants to argue that non-profit organizations are intolerant toward abstinence--another lie--she herself is guaranteed good funding that prevents other viewpoints from being taught. Abstinence-only federal dollars are gags on free speech.

Now let's consider this paragraph:

"Planned Parenthood has inundated schools with its safe-sex agenda for an exhausting and frustrating 45 years. The results from this human experiment are in. Two million teenagers contract a sexually transmitted disease each year; 1 million become pregnant. Every 23 seconds, a woman will lay down her body to be exploited by abortion, and 45 million babies have been killed in the name of reproductive health since 1973. I think it's safe to say it's time to pass the baton."

Even if we assume that the claims McLane makes here are true, what makes her think that abstinence-only is any more effective? Consider the impact of an abstinence-only program in Minnesota, called
Minnesota Education Now and Babies Later (MN ENABL). You can read about this on SIECUS website here. You can also read the study here at the program's website.

Here is part of the discussion section of MN ENABL's self-study of their program:

There was little impact of the curriculum on youth attitudes, sexual intentions, and behaviors after one year.

• The percentage of students who endorsed three of four refusal skills declined significantly in the year following the curriculum. In a one-year follow-up of students who had received the 2001 curriculum and completed post-curriculum surveys, we found that fewer students said they would talk with their partner about abstinence, avoid risky situations, or say “no” to sex. Significant declines were more prominent for 9th graders than for 8th graders. Changes were significant for girls as well as boys. Boys were less sure they would talk to their girl/boyfriend about their decision to be abstinent, girls were less sure they would avoid risky situations (such as going into a bedroom or drinking), and both genders were less likely to say they would say “no” to having sex.

• The percentage of students who endorsed reasons to postpone sex also declined significantly. In the same follow-up survey, we found that students’ attitudes about sex changed over the year, with significantly fewer students believing sex is something only adults should do.

Among the reasons that MN ENABL gives for the inefficacy of this program is the following observation:

"Unless the effort is extraordinarily well funded, this approach may result in prevention strategies that are diffuse, short-term, and lacking in intensity. The PSI curriculum, for example, is only five sessions long. Even when short-term education is embedded with community organizing and media campaigns, it is still likely to have low intensity when measured on a per student, or per family basis."
I know this sounds nutty, but hey, isn't that the same problem with comprehensive sexual education?