Lemon Line: How the feds screwed up sex ed | VailDaily.com
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Lemon Line: How the feds screwed up sex ed

Heather Lemon
Vail CO, Colorado

Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.

Or so say the proponents of abstinence-only programs designed to reduce teen pregnancies and eliminate sexually transmitted diseases (STD). It is the only way to guarantee 100 percent prevention of pregnancy or of becoming infected with an STD, which could scar a teen for life. So why did Colorado officials refuse $447,000 in federal grants last week targeted to fund a popular, abstinence-only program?

Last year, 831,000 15- to 19-year-olds became pregnant in the United States. While the trend over the last decade has been declining, this statistic represents a significant rise from the previous year and officials are debating why. A more frightening figure is that there were 19 million reported cases of new STDs last year, more than half in the 15- to 24-year-old age category. A recent 2006 survey conducted by Mathematica Research reports that among teenagers, 14.3 percent admitted to having sex with more than four different partners, and the number increases to 21.3 percent for high school seniors. Among those who owned up to being sexually active, 37.2 percent admitted that they had unprotected sex, and 44.6 percent of seniors in high school confessed to forgoing the bother of protection. This is a problem.

The federal government under Title V matching grants (states must ante up $3 for every $4) has allocated $50 million for abstinence-only programs in an attempt to address this issue. Yet Colorado joined 13 other states in refusing this money.

Citing the 2007 Mathematica research, Colorado health department officials claim that abstinence-only programs are ineffective in reducing teen pregnancies and they did not want to waste the money. The survey reviewed four different programs addressing different population groups and compared them to control groups from the same area. There was no statistical difference between the abstinence-only participants and the control kids in reporting first time sexual experiences. The average age was 14.9 years old.

I believe that abstinence is the best choice for teens today. But when the federal government starts to dictate how or what programs are the best for me and my children I have a problem. The federal money requires that abstinence-only funded programs are the only programs that school districts can run. Abstinence-only supporters say that to teach kids about protection and preach abstinence sends a mixed message that confuses the teens and invites them to go ahead and experiment. Critics of the abstinence-only approach claim that sex happens and kids are not taught about protection, which results in an increase in exposure to STDs and more teen pregnancies, not fewer.

The Mathematica research showed that in fact while there was no statistical difference in reducing first-time sexual experiences among teens, the abstinence-only kids did in fact have better information than the control group about protection, and that there were positive influences and peer support. The report went on to state that most programs are targeted at junior high and do not continue through high school. They stated that there was no data on the influence an abstinence-only program would have if it carried through the remainder of their teen experience.

I do not understand why a comprehensive solution that teaches the practicality of protection, the dangers of unprotected sex, and offers abstinence as the best alternative cannot be supported. I want our children educated, informed, and then taught to wait.

Colorado health officials correctly refused the federal funding, but for the wrong reasons. Taking only a part of the report as the basis for the decision begs the question of what is best for our children. Friends First (the program denied the federal funding) is a follow-through program that provides support until college. It is a good program that in combination with solid scientific information would be a huge benefit for our kids.

But once again, the federal government takes a good thing and screws it up. By providing federal funding and then limiting the education to only those programs, the true benefits of abstinence-only are lost in the political morass of the far right.

We need leadership that considers in a nonpartisan way, what is the common good of the people. Is that so difficult to ask?

Heather Lemon of Eagle-Vail writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. She can be reached at lemonvail@aol.com.


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