This past November has been said to have been a referendum on values and moral issues. Candidates on the Right claimed to have a firm grasp on them, and those on the Left ran from the subject like it was a swarm of angry bees. During the first months of 2005 we've seen this battle continue in the public sphere as the Terri Schiavo tele-drama has played out and the upcoming showdown on Federal Judges approaches. Those on the Right claim that they are attempting to preserve life, however I believe that the proper way to counter this argument, besides the obvious hypocrisy of supporting life for the unborn and those that are near death while supporting the death penalty for juveniles, is to focus on what this debate is really about - Sex.
This is a battle over who has sex, when they have sex and how they have sex - for sex is the pathway to the continuation of human life, as well as the manner in which many people in the last 50 years have unwittingly hastened their own death and the death of others through the spread of STD's. Rather than run from this debate, Democrats and moderate Republicans need to engage the other side directly and forthrightly.
Sex Ed in the years of George W. Bush has dramatically changed. Under Bush, the Federal government has restricted all of it's financial support for sex education in schools to abstinence-only styled problems. Schools are still free to provide comprehensive and so-called abstinence-plus classes, but these must be paid for out of their own budget. Church organizations who particularly oppose contraception as a open door to premarital sex strongly support these programs, but the real question is - do they work?
Shelby Knox, 15-year-old activist.
"Maybe twice a week, I see a girl walking down the hall pregnant... It's part of normal life at my school. If a student asks a teacher about sex, the teacher by policy is required to answer with 'Abstinence is the only way to prevent STD's and teen pregnancy.'... If they don't, they're in danger of losing their job."
Pastor Ed Ainsworth
"Christians in general are not like what the religious right portrays," she says. "That is just a very vocal side of it. I believe most Christians are loving, caring and tolerant. They believe in civil liberties and civil rights. It's very sad and detrimental to the Christian faith that some people have decided to use it for political advantage."A recent report from The Daily Texan indicates that some of the bad information given out by abstinence-only programs have led to an increase in young people experimenting with oral and anal sex, assuming that it's "not real sex".
Is giving our children bad information the best way to help them make good decisions about sex, their own bodies and procreation? It seems that the jury remains out, but if results so far in Lubbock and other parts of Texas where abstinence-only has been the norm for nearly a decade are to be trusted - it appears not.
Amy Fritsche and Rick Gutierrez plan to do what more than two million young people have already done in the past 10 years – take a pledge to remain virgins until marriage. (CBS)
Update: Another program which has addressed this subject has been 60 Minutes, with a feature called "Taking the Pledge" which focused on other teens who had taken part in abstinence-only programs.
Columbia University’s Peter Bearman co-authored the most comprehensive study ever done on adolescent health and sexuality. He says, "Sex education doesn’t cause all these negative outcomes. What causes these negative outcomes is kids who are having sex and aren’t protecting themselves."
It was a $45-million project, funded by 17 separate federal agencies. Bearman’s investigators interviewed more than 20,000 young people about virginity pledge programs -- and there was some good news.
"Pledging will help them delay sex for, say, 18 months — a year and a half," says Bearman. "It's a big deal in the lives of teenagers. Eighteen months is a phenomenally long time. It’s almost two school years."
So what's the downside?
"The downside is that, when they have sex, pledgers are one-third less likely to use condoms at first sex," says Bearman. "So all of the benefit of the delay in terms of pregnancy-risk and in terms of STD acquisition -- poof -- it just disappears because they’re so much less likely to use a condom at first sex."
Why do they not use condoms?
"They’ve been taught that condoms don’t work; they’re fearful of them. They don’t know how to use them," says Bearman. "Their peers don’t use them. They have no experience with them. They don’t know how to get them. They’re hard to get access to. For whatever reason they don’t use them, that has long-term consequences."
Not only are kids who take virginity pledges just as likely to have sexually transmitted diseases as kids who don’t, but they are even more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior. This finding - something that really surprised Bearman -- appeared two months ago in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
"Adolescents who take virginity pledges – who remain virgins, that is, who don’t have vaginal sex, who technically remain virgins, are much more likely to have oral and anal sex," says Bearman.
"They're not thinking they’re having sex?" asks Bradley.
"Well, if they are trying to preserve their virginity, their technical virginity by having oral or anal sex, then obviously they’re defining these behaviors as not sex," says Bearman.
"So they’re probably less likely to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease?" asks Bradley.
"They're much less likely to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease. They’ve taken a public pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. The sex that they have is much more likely to be hidden," says Bearman. "It’s likely to be hidden from their parents. It’s likely to be hidden from their peers. And if they live in a small community, it’s quite likely to be hidden from their doctor."
Again, these teens are taught to not use condoms. But the larger tragedy of this situation is the statistic that the vast majority of these programs are failures at preventing teen sex (88% of teens who "take the pledge", break it within 18-months) and even encourage them to engage in high-risk behaviors, placing them a greater risk for unwanted pregnancy as well as the spread of disease.
All brought to you by the Christian Conservatives of the Bush Administration.
(*The question of Federal funds being paid to a religious operative in a public school to teach a course based in religion more than science and fact - also remains unanswered.)