The Plank

Sex, Lies, And Mcabstinence-only


The scurrilous sex-education ad
released earlier this week by the McCain campaign wasn't just about dirty
. It was
also a rejection of comprehensive sex education programs that have
to help protect young people's health and safety. What does McCain favor
instead? Abstinence-only programs that have been thoroughly discredited--not
only by the left, but also by half of America's state governments. Since
September 2005, 25 states have rejected the
government's Title V funds for abstinence-only education, fed up with relying on
ineffective programs that have failed to improve young people's

One of the most definitive takedowns of abstinence-only
education has been the Mathematica Policy Research study
released in April 2007,
which examined federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs over a nine-year period. According to the congressionally-mandated

Program recipients were no more likely than
nonrecipients to delay sexual initiation, and when they did become sexually
active, program recipients had the same number of sexual partners and were no
more likely to use condoms or other forms of

Comprehensive sex ed, in contrast, has been a
demonstrable success, "delaying the
initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual
partners, and
increasing condom or contraceptive use," according to one 2007

While federal funding continues to back these disproved, misleading, and deceptive
programs, states are scrambling to fund interventions that will actually have an
impact. A few weeks ago, I spoke with former New Mexico health secretary Michelle Lujan
Grisham. The resource-poor state has one of the highest unwanted teenage
pregnancy rates in the country, and in 2004, she explained that state officials
were willing to give federally-funded abstinence-only education a try. "We had
evidence that 30% of 6th grade boys were engaged in sexually based
activities ... and we needed to do
something before it was too late."

So New Mexico decided to use the federal abstinence-only
funds to create a program for fifth-graders to help them "assess high-risk
behaviors and to teach them techniques to say no, and resist peer pressure,"
with one section addressing "appropriate and inappropriate touching," Grisham
says. But local conservative Christian activists assailed the program for
focusing on younger children, and the federal government eventually threatened
to pull out the funds.

Ultimately, Grisham says, "It was easier to say, forget
it [to the funds] than allow the Bush administration to dictate what we were
going to do." New
Mexico was lucky enough to find a private foundation to
support health education and sexual abuse-prevention programs that didn't meet
the hidebound stipulations for federal funding. But not every state can expect
to be so lucky. And if McCain ends up winning and governing by the standards
laid out in his ad this week, policies aimed at promoting ideology over science
would continue to jeopardize the health and safety of America's youth--kindergarteners

--Suzy Khimm

Suzy Khimm is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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