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In or Out of Limbo?

January 28, 2009

The AP headline “Future of Abstinence-Only Funding Is in Limbo” gives sexuality educators hope that the winds of change presently sweeping the land will finally end our government’s funding of abstinence-only programs, which have cost us $176 million each year and $1.5 billion over the past decade.

Many hope that new policies and funding for comprehensive sexuality education will replace abstinence-only funding and policies. Comprehensive sex ed balances instruction about the merits of delaying sexual activity with medically accurate instruction about the benefits of using contraceptives.

Our hopefulness comes because President Obama is considered an advocate for comprehensive sex education. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the AP: “[Obama] totally understands the need for young people to have comprehensive sex education—they need information that protects their health. … I hope that will be the position of the administration, but when Congress gets involved, sometimes things get more complicated.”

An Obama spokesman refused to confirm or deny what the President would propose in his budget—keeping the funding issue still firmly in limbo and advocates on both sides of the issue on a tether.

Congress has gotten involved in a way that should warm the hearts of comprehensive sexuality education advocates. On the first day of Senate business, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced the Prevention First Act. This legislation would increase access to both contraception and comprehensive sexuality education and support programs designed to reduce unintended pregnancies. Congresswomen Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Diane DeGette (D-CO) introduced the same legislation in the House of Representatives.

Slaughter, who strongly opposes any continued funding for abstinence-only programs, introduced the legislation by saying: “We can’t have both [comprehensive and abstinence-only programs], because abstinence-only doesn’t work. We believe the amount of money that goes into [abstinence-only] would be so much better used on things to prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

Slaughter is sanguine that when the Prevention First Act comes to a vote there will be enough support in the new Congress to pass it.

In his important work Emerging Answers 2007: Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., reviewed 115 programs and found “strong evidence” for the effectiveness of comprehensive sexuality education programs and “limited evidence” of the effectiveness of abstinence-until-marriage curricula.

But before we start celebrating, Sarah Brown, the executive officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, offers a cautionary note.  She recommends that “science-driven” be applied to sexuality education programs, saying that this approach favors comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only, but that, in due course, researchers might find that some abstinence-only programs are effective. (This list of “science-driven” or “evidence-driven” programs is not long and can be found here.)

More and better research about comprehensive sexuality education can only continue to move it out of limbo and into the educational sunlight where we believe it belongs.