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.)