Teaching Abstinence: Legislators Just Said No

La Verne A. Tolbert is an educator and a former board member of Planned Parenthood

Something is very wrong with our logic. There are condoms in our schools. This "solution" is supposed to encourage inner-city high school students, who are the focus of contraceptive services, to "plan ahead" and use condoms during sexual activity.

Teaching abstinence as an alternative has been rejected. For the second year in a row, Senate and Assembly Democrats rejected $7.2 million in federal pregnancy prevention funds for teens, bowing instead to those who would deny our children options that require self-control and self-respect. The funds would have been matched at the local level by schools, government and nonprofit groups presenting abstinence-based programs that include a critical message students otherwise might not hear.

As an African American educator, I am appalled at the implication that our children are incapable of controlling themselves. And I am disheartened at leadership that denies African American and Latino children in California the right to learn the same skills that children across America are learning. What is so puzzling is that our state education code mandates that sex education programs stress abstinence as the healthiest option. Why, then, are our children not given this choice?

Common sense tells us that teenagers are not ready to be sexually active. This is why there are high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS and swelling welfare rolls.

With the goal of moving people from welfare to work by stemming the tide of out-of-wedlock births, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed by Congress designated $50 million nationally to teach abstinence for the next five years. The $7.2 million that was rejected was supposed to help those populations most in need: inner-city children and teenagers. Why did California say "no" to this money?

In journal after journal, researchers conclude that condom-distribution programs do not work. Here are just a few examples:

A 1995 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health, reported very high rates of sexually transmitted diseases among student-patients at school-based clinics. Forty-three percent of the girls were diagnosed with chlamydia. There were also high rates of partner switching--as many as 35 partner changes for those who were in the program six to 10 months. Pregnancy was common.

Another study published in that same journal found that condom use is low although sexual activity rates are high. It found that "students who have sex more frequently were less likely to use condoms" even though they are accessible, available and free.

Family Planning Perspectives, which evaluated four family-planning school-based clinics in California, determined: "The availability of contraceptives on site, which has been thought to be an important convenience factor contributing to positive contraceptive adoption," had no positive effect at all.

If sexual activity rates are high, and if rates of sexually transmitted diseases escalate, perhaps it's time ask ourselves: "Are we doing more harm than good?"

With condom availability, we create a school environment that says that we expect and we accept sexual activity.

Studies show that teenagers may not consistently use condoms. Even if they do use them, HIV/AIDS might still result from "imperfect" use. And students may be exposed to other sexually transmitted diseases that are not prevented by condoms.

Self-control, self-respect, delayed gratification, planning for the future, building healthy friendships and other values essential to abstinence education are necessary for every area of life, not just in the delay of sexual activity. In Washington, the abstinence program Best Friends has proved to be extremely successful among African American females. In seven years, only one girl in 400 has become pregnant.

Needless to say, California's rejection of free abstinence funds was extremely premature. Abstinence education deserves a fair chance.

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