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Abstinence only education is a bad idea

March 29, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
In 2009, 45 percent of high school students in North Dakota said they had had sex. Just 19 percent of teenagers said that abstinence was important to them at this point in their lives.

Those numbers, reported by the anonymous 2009 Youth Behavior Risk Survey given every other year to high school students in the state, haven't changed much from year to year.

Those stats won't come as any great surprise to any adult who remembers being a teenager, either. About half of teens, or more, have always been sexually active. Based on my own observations, I would say the number of teen pregnancies in the area might be on the upswing as well.

So why exactly is the state Legislature set to approve a bill that requires high schools to teach only abstinence-only sex education? HB1229 was changed this week to focus only on abstinence. The new legislation would require that health courses "explain why abstinence from sexual activity until marriage provides safety from sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and other associated health issues." Teenagers also must be taught "how to reject sexual advances, including self-defense."

Any sex education course must also "explain the negative influences of the sex-saturated media that present teen sexual activity as an expected norm, with few risks or negative consequences," according to the legislation. The modified bill was approved 39 to 8 in the Senate and has been sent back to the House for further discussion.

Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, was quoted in an Associated Press article as saying that the intent is to prevent teachers from discussing contraception with students.

While the bill doesn't mention birth control at all and wouldn't specifically ban teachers from discussing it, it surely will put a chilling effect on any discussion of the ways sexually active teens might protect themselves from STDs and unplanned pregnancies.

"We can help to form the hearts and minds of our young people for righteousness," said Sitte.

With all due respect to Sen. Sitte, that approach is called burying your head in the sand. It also doesn't work. Every recent study I've seen showed that abstinence only education doesn't do a whole lot to prevent kids from being sexually active. If anything, it prevents the kids who have sex from using birth control when they become sexually active and puts them at greater risk for pregnancy and STDs.

On the other hand, programs that provide kids with matter-of-fact, explicit instruction about how to obtain birth control and how to use it properly, in combination with instruction in how to say "no" to sexual advances before they're ready and about why abstinence is usually a good idea for young teens, are more likely to result in delayed sexual activity and fewer teen pregnancies. Having loving parents who take the time to share family values about sexual activity and to keep them involved in family and community activities also gets good results, since those teens are more likely to wait longer to have sex and to use protection when they do.

Some kids will not share Sitte's views about righteousness and will not view having sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend as inappropriate. Religious teens will come from families and church education programs that do share Sitte's point of view, but they may end up having sex anyway. I'd rather see those kids armed with the information they need to protect themselves from disease or too early pregnancy, which is bad for society as a whole as well as for the individual teenager, since children of single parents are a lot more likely to grow up in poverty and have poor educational outcomes than kids born to older, better educated and financially prepared parents.

Kids deserve more than half truths and omissions in their health and sex education classes.

Some legislators wisely spoke up in opposition to the abstinence-only bill. Hopefully there is still time for their voices to prevail.


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