With the recent selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, Presidential candidate John McCain reinforced an ongoing Republican alignment with conservative Christians. The Alaskan Governor has been a strong proponent of both creationism and abstinence education for public school students.
Directly after McCain’s selection of Palin, the Republican Party formally released its platform for 2008. Among the educational planks was a commitment to pursue increased funding for abstinence education.
Support for Abstinence Education Dissipating
While the Republican stance sought to increase funding for the program, abstinence-only education has been losing steam in recent years. According to the web site WebMD Health News, “Seventeen states, including California, have opted out of the programs, choosing to forgo federal funds and instead teach about abstinence along with contraception, including condom use.”
A recent Associated Press article confirmed that data, noting “that participation in the program is down 40 percent over two years.” And while 28 states are still in, the AP reports that “Arizona and Iowa recently announced they will pull out at the start of the upcoming fiscal year.”
The end result is that of the $50 million budgeted for three possible Title V abstinence education programs only $21 million has actually been distributed.
Abstinence Only Education Deemed Ineffective
Though it is hard to imagine cash-strapped states forgoing potential funds for education in any form, recent data demonstrates that abstinence-only programs have failed to produce the desired outcome. Such programs show no evidence of delaying kids' first sexual experience nor have the programs been effective in reducing teen pregnancies for those who do have sex.
In discussing abstinence-only education, Harvey Feinberg, MD and President of the Institute of Medicine, noted a recent summary by the Cochrane Collaboration. Feinberg indicated that of 13 studies testing abstinence-only education, not one showed an “enduring effect” on teen’s sexual behavior.
"To limit them (sexual education programs) to abstinence-only does not comport with the evidence,” states Feinberg.
Despite that data, abstinence proponents point to recent teen pregnancy rates for support. According to the National Survey of Family Growth, pregnancy rates “have fallen from 117 births per 1,000 females in 1990 to 76 per 1,000 in 2002.”
However, John Santelli, a professor of population studies at Columbia University, indicated that “most of the 35% drop occurred before 1998, when two separate federal abstinence-only programs were started.”
Skepticism Amidst a Rigid Curriculum
While some states have pulled out of the program because of the continuous uncertainties regarding funding for the program, others have also taken note of the lack of supporting evidence of program success. For example, a rising pregnancy rate among 15-19 year-olds in Idaho had state officials thinking it was simply time to get out of the program.
In addition, opponents insist that the government program is simply too dogmatic. "It was just too strict," said Emily Hajek, a policy adviser to Iowa Governor Chet Culver. "You cannot be that prescriptive about how it has to be taught."
But any summation against abstinence education likely comes best from Dr. Ned Calonge, Colorado’s chief medical officer. Calonge’s assessment was based upon the federally funded study of four abstinence-only programs by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. published in April of 2007.
MPR “found that participants had just as many sexual partners as nonparticipants and had sex at the same median age as nonparticipants. That finding led Calonge to state:
"To show no benefit compared to nothing. That was striking. These are tax dollars that are going for no useful purpose, and it would not be responsible for us to take those dollars."
Uphill Battle for Republicans
Ironically, the platform also made a point of stressing support for programs that had a demonstrated track record of success. The platform states: "We advocate policies and methods that are proven and effective.”
While proponents of abstinence education continue to assert that abstinence is the only failsafe method for avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, there is no concrete evidence that this unambiguous message for adolescents is effective. Taken as a set of statements, increased funding for the governmental abstinence education program definitively contradicts the notion of supporting a program with a proven record.
And as for the presidential race and the Republican platform, given that Governor Palin is a proponent of abstinence education, the recent revelations regarding her teenage daughter, Bristol serve as additional evidence that the abstinence-only message simply does not cut it with adolescents.
In fact, Republicans, most especially Governor Palin, all have to be hoping that a 527 political action committee does not take a page out of the politics of personal destruction playbook that has been the hallmark of the Karl Rove era and apply it to the situation involving the Governor's teenage daughter.