Abstinence-Only: Breeding Ignorance

Mary-Jane Wagle is CEO of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.

Imagine a driver’s education course in which teachers show students grisly photos of traffic accidents but never tell them to stop at red lights or buckle their seat belts, and you’ve a pretty good idea of what abstinence-only sex education is like. Abstinence-only programs try to scare and shame teens, teaching only the negative consequences of sexuality without telling young people what they can do to stay safe and healthy.

Now a congressional staff analysis on the content of the federally funded sex education programs used in 25 states reveals they’re just plain wrong. The report found that more than 80% of abstinence-only curricula contain false, misleading or distorted information about reproductive health.

The analysis, released by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), found that many of these curricula contain false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives and the risks of abortion. Several of the curricula contain basic scientific errors and present religious views as proven fact. Some curricula also treat gender stereotypes as scientific truth.


Here are some examples: In several abstinence-only programs, students are erroneously told that condoms fail to protect against HIV and that pregnancy occurs one out of every seven times that couples use a condom. One textbook states that touching another person’s genitals “can result in pregnancy.” Another suggests that 5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile as a result.

One curriculum refers to a 43-day-old fetus as “a thinking person.” Another incorrectly lists exposure to sweat and tears as risk factors for HIV transmission. And one textbook sanctimoniously instructs teenagers: “Women gauge their happiness and judge their success on their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.”

California has been wise enough to see through the hype of abstinence-only sex education, and it continues to be one of the few states that refuse to accept the federal funding for abstinence-only curricula.

Californians mandate HIV/AIDS education in our schools and require that all sexuality education is comprehensive and medically accurate. And our attention to the needs of our state’s youth has paid off. Our teen pregnancy rate has fallen by 40% over the last 10 years -- the largest decrease of any state except Alaska.

Abstinence-only curricula, such as those being pushed and funded by the Bush administration, aren’t just riddled with errors -- they clearly have no positive effect on the behavior of teens. Researchers at Columbia University found that while virginity “pledge” programs did help some of the participants delay sex, 88% still had premarital sex.

Additionally, the rates of sexually transmitted infections among pledgers showed no statistically significant difference from non-pledgers.

Despite these problems, the federal government will squander an astonishing $168 million for these programs in fiscal 2005. Although this falls short of the $270 million President Bush initially proposed, it more than doubles the amount spent in 2001. Meanwhile, programs that work go unfunded.

Proponents of abstinence-only sex education believe that knowledge can be dangerous. Ignorance, however, can be fatal. Last week, we marked World AIDS Day. When our young people are at risk of HIV infection as well as other sexually transmitted infections, it is unconscionable to deprive them of information that can save their lives.