Anti-Abstinence Crusaders See What They Want to See

On the day that the news section of the Providence Journal acknowledged that abstinence-only sex-ed programs could potentially be successful, the editors of the Lifebeat section thought it necessary to rush to the defense of their modern kulturkampf with the headline, “Program blamed for rise in teen pregnancy” on the section’s front page. Of course, the immediate question is who is doing the blaming:

The national teen pregnancy rate is on the rise again after 15 years of decline, and the group providing the data lays the blame squarely on the Bush administration’s stepped-up funding for abstinence-only education programs.
The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that’s aligned with Planned Parenthood but nevertheless is respected for its data on reproductive issues, reported last week that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate had risen by 3 percent from 2005 to 2006, the latest year for which figures are available.

What makes the citation especially troublesome is that the article specifically notes the research of John Santelli. Back when one of his studies was fresh, something in the reported data bothered me, so I actually purchased a copy of the study in order to review the methodology. What I discovered was that Santelli’s basic math simply didn’t show what he claimed it to show. In a nutshell, his equations credited contraception not only with its own success rate, but also with the success of increasing abstinence. My communications with Dr. Santelli became snippier, on his end, in proportion to the specificity of my explanations.
The basic pattern of distorted findings being spun to even greater distortions in the press is very familiar. Indeed, back in 2004, the New York Times heralded a study disclaiming the effectiveness of an abstinence pledge. When I looked into the numbers, I noticed not only that abstinence had, in fact, increased, but also that many of the respondents who had not “lived up to their vows” to remain abstinent had actually broken that vow after making another: they got married.
Thus, we end up with a bifurcated society, in which readers of the Projo’s Lifebeat section heed the research wing of Planned Parenthood, while others share Robert Rector’s understanding of the situation:

No one knowledgeable about abstinence education, however, would find this startling. In fact, eleven previous sound studies showed strong positive effects from abstinence programs. The mainstream media simply ignored them.

Human nature will always tend toward a (generally productive) battle between groups preferring different conclusions. But when that battle is amped up on the steroids of massive amounts of federal funding and even more substantial potential for the regulation of people’s lives, objectivity — not to mention common sense — becomes more difficult to maintain. (See also, climate change.)

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14 years ago

One problem I have with the study is that it was conducted on twelve year olds, measuring performance when they were 14, not a real big-picture view.
Also, it may have dropped the incidence of -having sex- by fifteen or so points, but it didn’t measure things like STDs or pregnancy.
In my opinion, this test didn’t measure the things that actually matter, bad outcomes. Sure, it seems logical that less sex equates to fewer STDs and pregnancies, but if you haven’t been instructed in safer sex, chances are that the ‘less sex’ that you are having is the kind that is a -lot- more dangerous.
Put simply, I’d gladly take twice as many teenagers ‘having sex’, if the sex they’re having is less than half as dangerous. And if 1/3rd of 14 year olds are still having sex with this ‘abstinence only’ training (as the study shows), it’s not OK to leave out the part about condoms.

Justin Katz
14 years ago

Your assumptions don’t match reality, which is understandable inasmuch as biased researchers and an even more biased press distort findings. Take this:

Sure, it seems logical that less sex equates to fewer STDs and pregnancies, but if you haven’t been instructed in safer sex, chances are that the ‘less sex’ that you are having is the kind that is a -lot- more dangerous.

I’ll use the “abstinence pledge” study that I noted in this post because I’ve recently refamiliarized myself with it and lack the time for more. The story line appears to be that the kids who took the pledge do delay sex, but then “catch up” with riskier behavior. It’s not true. Twice as many of the pledgers had married by the time the results were culled, and taking married respondents out of the mix shows that almost three times as many unmarried non-pledgers had failed to use condoms as was true for unmarried pledgers. Moreover, the non-pledgers had had more partners, and the key statistic of condom use is based on “at least once” within the past year, which means that unprotected sex could have been unlimited. And even more moreover, the supposed “catch up” was done after the critical high school teen years that ought to be our main focus for reducing unhealthy sexual behaviors.
It stands to reason that children trained to have sex, and having more of it, will be more inclined to experiment without the dreaded and dulling rubber?
I’d also add that it continues to be a fallacy to suggest that the actual abstinence-only programs that have been in effect are so pervasive that the kids aren’t taught about contraceptives. These studies don’t hunt down strange American tribes somewhere in the Midwest who lack a variety of inputs.

14 years ago

Well I’ll admit that my opinion above isn’t informed by data, I haven’t looked at all at the data, just voicing the problems I saw in the link you provided.
If abstinence-only education works at reducing bad outcomes better than comprehensive sex-ed, I’m all for it. I’m flexible. I’ll buy-in to what works. There needs to be a LOT of research though. Can’t be too careful when dealing with our number-one resource here.
I wonder if there’s some way to get those 1/3rd of fourteen year-olds who -are- having sex into some sort of functional ‘so you’re doing it anyway’ education.
As for the ‘children trained to have sex’… I got comprehensive sex-ed, it certainly wasn’t sex-training. Most kids already knew the basics, and our health teacher really dispelled a lot of myths for those of us who hadn’t already pored-over their parents’ copy of ‘Joy of Sex’ or ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’. You wouldn’t believe how many teenagers think they can get pregnant from ‘swallowing’, or even kissing! These days, it’s just as important to stress that while you can’t get pregnant from oral sex, you -can- get all sorts of STDs, even ones that lead to head and neck cancer later in life.

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