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Wednesday, April 9, 2008 02:20 pm

Results matter

Studies show that abstinence-only programs don’t work

Untitled Document New research reveals that female students in programs that promote abstinence exclusively are more likely to get pregnant than those in programs that teach about the full range of contraceptives as well as abstinence. The news, published in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, is just the latest proof that the $1.5 billion “just say no to sex” experiment on our teens has failed. And though Christian conservatives defend their approach even in the face of this latest devastating news, it’s time to ask them one simple question: Shouldn’t the results matter?
At current rates, half of all teenagers will have sex before graduating from high school, and 95 percent will do so before marrying. These statistics infuriate proponents of abstinence until marriage. Their hope is that, by keeping teens in the dark about protection, ignorance will somehow lead to temperance. Those most committed to the abstinence approach seem to have paid most dearly, though. Earlier findings by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities revealed that teens taking part in virginity-pledge programs (they pledge to stay virgins until marriage) are more likely than their nonpledging peers to engage in risky unprotected sex. The study also showed that virgin pledgers were six times more likely to engage in oral sex and that male “virgins” are four times more likely to have anal sex than those who do not take the pledge. These “virgins” had the same rate of sexually transmitted disease as other teens but were much less likely to be treated for them. Southern school districts, which are five times more likely to use the abstinence-only approach than Northeastern schools, have much to show for investing in it. Today, Southern states lead the nation in the acquisition of STDs and in new HIV/AIDS cases and have the highest percentage of teen mothers in the country. The damage is so staggering that 19 states have opted to reject federal funding for abstinence-only education. In the long term, they have concluded, the costs of their failure outweigh any benefits.
Abstinence is not the only policy that Christian conservatives pursue despite evidence that it doesn’t work. In fact, many of the movement’s policies have, even by its own standards, led to perverse outcomes. Consider the drive to outlaw abortion. Last year, 14 states moved to ban abortion immediately and create a case with which to test Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court. But if ending abortion is the goal, banning abortion is quite possibly the worst strategy. The countries with the highest abortion rates in the world are those that have banned abortion. Take Latin America, where most countries have outlawed abortion yet have the same rate or — as in the cases of Peru, Chile, and Brazil — rates twice as high as that of the United States. And where on earth have the lowest abortion rates been achieved? In countries with the strongest pro-choice policies, such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy, where abortion is not only legal but in some circumstances available free of charge. This linking of pro-choice policy and lower abortion rates has been seen in our country as well. We witnessed the most dramatic decline in abortions in the history of our country under our first pro-choice president, Bill Clinton. These declines continue today and notably where it is falling sharpest is where the strongest pro-choice policies, namely prevention through wider access to contraception, have been adopted. And though banning abortion has failed to stop abortions, limiting abortion rights has also produced undesired outcomes. A favorite tactic of the “right to life” movement is to impose mandatory delays on abortion. A woman must receive information about her right to an abortion and then must wait 24 to 48 hours before undergoing the procedure. Sounds harmless enough — but even though these policies have had little effect on the frequency of abortion, they have dramatically increased the number of late-term abortions. In the year after Mississippi passed a mandatory-delay law, the incidence of second-trimester abortion increased statewide by 53 percent. These days, nearly half of the women presenting for abortions late in their pregnancies cite pro-life restrictions as the cause. The danger of policies guided by ideology is that the means often are the end. There is no better example of the deleterious effects of policies based on wishful thinking than the reproductive-rights debate. We need to respect people’s ability to make their own life decisions and not impose our values and views upon them. If Americans were to set aside the sound bites and suspiciously simplistic reasoning and instead judge by results, most would find that the pro-choice movement is a more comfortable home for their stated values. 

Cristina Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and a spokeswoman for BirthControlWatch.org.
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