It was with great delight that I read the editorial today. Almost a decade ago I was lucky enough to go on a study tour to the USA to learn more about abstinence education - the why, the what and the how. In the report of the study tour, 'Just Say No! to abstinence education published by NCB (www.ncb.org.uk) we wrote 'we returned to England proud of what we had achieved and determined to build on our successes. The potential for the development of abstinence education in the UK was just not something we wanted to imagine, and we were determined that any attempts were they made to do so were curtailed.
Now, at last, the official policy of the USA is taking a somewhat different and more positive approach to educating young people about relationships and sexuality.
The colleague who sent it to me, was even more elated - she has spent years living with and fighting federal and state policy and can now see light at the end of the tunnel.
End to the Abstinence-Only Fantasy
The omnibus government spending bill signed into law last week contains an important victory for public health. Gone is all spending for highly restrictive abstinence-only sex education programs that deny young people accurate information about contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. The measure redirects sex-education resources to medically sound programs aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy.
Federal support for the wishful abstinence-only approach, which began in the 1980s, ballooned during George W. Bush’s presidency. As the funding grew, so did evidence of the policy’s failure. A Congressionally mandated study released in 2007 found that elementary and middle school students who received abstinence instruction were just as likely to have sex in the following year as students who did not get such instruction.
Many states rightly declined to participate in the abstinence program, forgoing federal money. Most of the nation’s recent progress in reducing the abortion rate has occurred in states that have shown a commitment to real sex education.
The last Bush budget included $99 million for abstinence-only education programs run by public and private groups. The new $114 million initiative, championed by the White House, will be administered by a newly created Office of Adolescent Health within the Department of Health and Human Services with a mandate to support “medically accurate and age appropriate programs” shown to reduce teenage pregnancy.
Unfortunately, some of this progress could be short-lived. The health care reform bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee includes an amendment, introduced by the Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, that would revive a separate $50 million grant-making program for abstinence-only programs run by states. Democratic leaders must see that this is stricken, and warring language that would provide $75 million for state comprehensive sex education programs should remain.
In another positive step, the spending bill increases financing for family-planning services for low-income women. It also lifts a long-standing, and utterly unjustified, ban on the District of Columbia’s use of its own tax dollars to pay for abortion services for poor women except in cases when a woman’s life is at risk, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Ideology, censorship and bad science have no place in public health policy. It is a relief to see some sense returning to Capitol Hill.