Over the past decade, most public schools in Louisiana have shifted to "abstinence-only" education, which promotes abstinence until marriage and forbids discussions of condoms and birth control. At first, that might seem like a good idea. After all, what parents wouldn't want their school-age children to abstain from sex? But a growing body of research is showing that "abstinence-only" education is not only ineffective, but also, in some cases, counterproductive.
Statewide, only a few public school districts -- including New Orleans -- teach comprehensive sex education, which emphasizes abstinence but also includes messages about birth control and disease prevention. That number of districts is shrinking statewide as the amount of funding for abstinence-only education increases. In fiscal year 2005, abstinence-only programs are slated to receive $167 million in federal funding, double the amount received in fiscal year 2001. Groups that receive funding through any of three federal abstinence initiatives must comply with eight points, which specify, among other things, that "sexual activity outside marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."
Louisiana's program -- the Governor's Program on Abstinence (GPA) -- is highly regarded by abstinence-only advocates nationwide. Trinidad and Tobago recently adopted a version of it as well. Advocates often call GPA "the Foster plan" for former Gov. Mike Foster, whose administration oversaw the program's inception. Gov. Kathleen Blanco also is a staunch abstinence-only supporter.
The Louisiana program has not been without controversy. In 2002, GPA made national headlines when the state American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully sued to bar the program's use of federal funds for "Christ-centered" skits, religious youth revivals and biblical instruction on purity. In November, the ACLU charged in a five-page complaint that the state is violating that prohibition. For instance, articles in the "library" on GPA's Web site (AbstinencEdu.com) contain assertions like this one: "The condom's biggest flaw is that those using it to prevent the conception of another human being are offending God."
Opponents of abstinence-only say that those programs allow instructors to mention birth control and condoms only in terms of failure rates. "If a student asks a teacher, a nurse, a counselor, about anything related to sex, the only acceptable response is, You don't have sex until you're married,'" says Tamara Kreinen, president of the New York-based group SEICUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
In December, a report released by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) discussed studies by groups including the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and Advocates for Youth, which found that abstinence-only programs showed some increases in positive attitudes toward abstinence but no lasting impact on behavior. Other studies have shown that while some students delay sex, most still became sexually active, and when they did, they were less likely to use contraception. In other words, abstinence-only campaigns usually fail to prevent premarital sex, but they are somewhat effective in discouraging the use of birth control.
Many abstinence-only programs also promote medically inaccurate information. Waxman's report found that 80 percent of the most widely used classroom guides contained "false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health." Some curricula claimed that condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time. If used properly, the failure rate for latex condoms is actually closer to about 2 percent, according to the government's own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Another curriculum contended that people can contract HIV through tears or sweat, despite the CDC's finding that "contact with saliva, tears, or sweat has never been shown to result in transmission of HIV."
Looking closer to home, we found that the Louisiana GPA promotes medical inaccuracies through its Web site, which is maintained by the Louisiana Family Forum. One GPA "expert" perpetuates a myth, contradicted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. Several parts of the site cast doubt on condoms' scientifically proven ability to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. For example, Massachusetts-based Dr. John R. Diggs Jr. notes that "one chemist has published several compelling articles in the rubber industry journals which indicate that there are flaws in condoms big enough to allow HIV organism passage." That's a disproven and dangerous assertion to make in a state like Louisiana, where the HIV/AIDS rate is startlingly high. Another alarming passage comes from Louisiana GPA medical advisor Dr. Dee Burbank, who describes 95 percent of all sexually transmitted diseases as incurable. Most are both treatable and curable. On the heels of Waxman's report, the American Medical Association announced that it would oppose federal funding for any programs not proven effective by independent scientific research. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician, has said that the government should review all programs, including federally funded abstinence programs, for accuracy. Abstinence remains every parent's goal for teenage children, but the facts of life are these: studies show that about half of all high-school students are sexually active; nearly two-thirds have sex by the time they graduate. Protecting teenagers from STDs and unwanted pregnancies requires honest science, accurate medical information and responsible educational programs.