Abstinence pledges don't always work

Letter to the editor

Posted: Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It's easy to see the rationale of some of the people raising their war cry over Planned Parenthood's pending opening of a Juneau clinic: If people (but especially teenagers) didn't have sex, we wouldn't need Planned Parenthood. It's a black-and-white, do-or-don't, issue, right? Wrong. While I am happy for Giselle Stone, (Empire, Feb. 20) and hope that her "True Love Waits" pledge works for her, most available evidence points otherwise. According to a major review of abstinence and abstinence-only sex-ed policies and programs in the United States, recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, adolescents have the highest age specific risk for most sexually transmitted infections, have the highest age-specific proportion of unintended pregnancy in the U.S. and make up 25 percent of new HIV infections.

In reviewing abstinence-only curricula, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform found that 11 of 13 abstinence-only curricula contained false or misleading information on reproductive health and contraceptive effectiveness, routinely reinforced stereotypes of men and women as scientific fact and blurred religious and scientific viewpoints.

Most importantly, according to the study, when viewed as a contraceptive, abstinence-only fails spectacularly, and may put participants at heightened risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy: "Abstinence from sexual intercourse has been described as fully protective against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. This is misleading and potentially harmful, because it conflates theoretical effectiveness with the actual practice of abstinence. Abstinence is not 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy or STIs (sexually transmitted infections) as many teens fail in remaining abstinent."

How many abstinence-only pledgers fail to remain abstinent? According to a major study on the effectiveness of abstinence-only conducted by Bruckner and Bearman, the numbers are grim: while pledgers are likely to delay sex by 18 months on average, more than 88 percent will have had intercourse before marriage." Disturbingly, those who fail at abstinence are less likely to use contraception after initiating sexual intercourse, and are less likely to see a doctor for a concern about a sexually transmitted infection or receive testing. The Journal of Adolescence Health study says it best: "user failure with abstinence appears very high. Although theoretically completely effective in preventing pregnancy, in actual practice the efficacy of abstinence-only education may approach zero."

It is nothing short of a national disgrace that our government has spent more than $1.1 billion on programs that promote bad science while simultaneously placing our youth at risk for contracting preventable diseases. Abstinence-only education not only censors vital health information, it doesn't work.

While I wish the best for Giselle and those who participate in abstinence-only education programs and pledge drives, I hope they remember to contact Planned Parenthood when 88 percent of them decide to forgo their pledge and have intercourse - they'll need it.

Joshua Edward


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