Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch achieved a major coup for conservative advocates of abstinence-only sex education in the Democratic health reform legislation passed March 21. It remains to be seen whether it was a coup for teens in Utah.
Hatch managed to win approval for an amendment to the bill that provides $50 million annually for five years to states that offer abstinence programs in public schools. It was almost the only Republican amendment to survive the tumultuous debate that raged into the night before the vote.
Hatch used the results of a recent study as evidence of the need for government-funded abstinence programs. The University of Pennsylvania research was published in the "Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine" in February. But, while the landmark study shows that non-moralistic abstinence-focused sex education can reduce sexual activity, the programs studied aren't much like the Utah curriculum.
The research looked at a program taught to African-American sixth- and seventh-graders. It found that about a third of those who completed the program designed by researchers started having sex as eighth- or ninth-graders. Close to half of the youngsters who attended other types of classes, including some offering information about both abstinence and contraception, had sex in the next two years.
The study has been welcomed by groups that promote abstinence-based sex education. They say it proves that teaching abstinence can help reduce the growing incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy among teenagers. The program in the study did not advocate waiting until marriage, but only until a person is "ready" to have sex. It did not tell the students that sex outside marriage is never appropriate; it provided detailed information and it did not discourage condom use.
In Utah, sex education is more limited. It is not taught until at least eighth grade, and it promotes abstinence until marriage. Condom use cannot be explained or encouraged.
Abstinence should be promoted in school as the best way for teenagers to avoid disease and pregnancy. But Utah programs provide so little detailed information about sex and how to avoid its dangers as to be useless in helping young people stay healthy when they do become sexually active.
The type of abstinence program in the study helped two-thirds of its participants avoid having sex until after ninth grade. But, if Utah schools were to emulate it they would have to provide more information than they do now to arm the one-third who are apt to become sexually active before they reach high school.