Ellen Goodman: Abstinence-only education is a joke

And a cruel and expensive one, too. Bring back reality-based science!

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BOSTON -- I hate to bring this up right now when the ink is barely dry on your New Year's resolution. But if history is any guide, you are likely to fall off the assorted wagons to which you are currently lashed.

I don't say this to disparage your willpower. Hang onto that celery stick for dear life. And even if you stop doing those stomach crunches and start sneaking out for a smoke, at least you can comfort yourself with fond memories of your moment of resolution.

Compare that to the factoid in the newest research about teens who pledge abstinence. The majority not only break the pledge, they forget they ever made it.

This study of teens and pledges comes from Johns Hopkins researcher Janet Rosenbaum, who took a rigorous look at nearly 1,000 students. She compared teens who took a pledge of abstinence with teens of similar backgrounds and beliefs who didn't. She found absolutely no difference in their sexual behavior, or the age at which they began having sex, or the number of their partners.

In fact, the only difference -- aside from apparent memory-impairment -- was that the group that promised to remain abstinent was significantly less likely to use birth control, especially condoms, when they did have sex. The lesson many students seemed to retain from their abstinence-only program was a negative and inaccurate view of contraception.

This is not just a primer on the capacity for teenage denial or the inner workings of adolescent neurobiology. What makes this study important is simply this: "virginity pledges" are one of the ways that the government measures whether abstinence-only education is "working." They count the pledges as proof that teens will abstain. It turns out that this is like counting New Year's resolutions as proof that you lost 10 pounds.

We have been here before. And before that. And before that.

When he was running for president, George W. Bush promised, "My administration will elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal."

Over the last eight years, a cottage industry of "abstinence-only-until-marriage" purveyors became a McMansion industry. Funding increased from $73 million a year in 2001 to $204 million in 2008.

That's a grand total of $1.5 billion in federal money for an ideology in search of a methodology. And half the states refused funds to pay for sex mis-education.

By now, there's an archive of research showing that the binge was a bust. Programs mandated to teach only "the social, psychological and health gains [of] abstaining from sexual activity" and to warn of the dangers of having sex have been awarded failing grades for truth and effectiveness. As Ms. Rosenbaum says, "Abstinence-only education is required to give inaccurate information. Teens are savvy consumers of information and know what they are getting."

Our national investment in abstinence-only may not be a scam on the scale of Bernie Madoff. But this industry has had standards for truth as loose as some mortgage lenders. It manufactures a product as ill-suited to the environment as the SUV. All in all, abstinence-only education has become emblematic of the rule of ideology over science.

The sorry part is that sex education got caught in the culture wars.

It's been framed, says Bill Albert of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as a battle between "those who wanted virginity pledges and those who wanted to hand out condoms to 14-year-olds."

Meanwhile, six in 10 teens have sex before they leave high school and 730,000 teenage girls will get pregnant this year. We see them everywhere from "Juno" to Juneau -- or to be more accurate, Anchorage, where Sarah Palin, advocate of abstinence-only education just became an unplanned grandparent.

What the overwhelming majority of protective parents actually want is not a political battle. They want teens to delay sex and to have honest information about sexuality, including contraception. The programs that work best combine those lessons.

Soon Congress and the new administration will be asked to ante up again for abstinence-only programs. As Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood says, abstinence-only education was "an experiment gone awry. We spent $1.5 billion and can't point to a single study that says this helps. If it doesn't help, why fund it?"

Teens are not the only masters of denial. But we are finally stepping back from the culture wars. We are, with luck, returning to something that used to be redundant -- evidence-based science. That's a pledge worth signing ... and remembering.


Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist for The Boston Globe ( ellengoodman@globe.com ).


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