James Werrell

Why fund sex education that doesn't work?

Sex pays.

Actually, to be more specific, convincing Congress that you have a program that will persuade teenagers to abstain from sex pays. Community-Based Abstinence Education, a consortium of hundreds of nonprofit groups and other local organizations, gets $113 million a year from the government to spread the gospel of abstinence.

Another $50 million in federal money is funneled through the states in Title V abstinence programs. President Bush, in his most recent budget request, has asked for a $28 million increase in community-based grants to teach abstinence only.

The problem is, these programs don't work.

That was confirmed again last week with the release of another survey showing that abstinence-only education fails to affect teen sexual behavior in any way. This report, sponsored by the nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, was based on a review of extensive research into teen sexual behavior.

The study concluded that no evidence exists that abstinence programs delay the initiation of sex, hasten the return to abstinence or reduce the number of sexual partners among teenagers.

Another study, released last April, drew similar conclusions. It, too, found that abstinence programs neither increased nor decreased the likelihood that teens would have sex.

So, what do abstinence-only programs do to justify the nearly $200 million investment of taxpayer dollars? Apparently, they offer a sense of satisfaction to social conservatives who don't want to be confused with the facts about teen sexuality.

It is easy to understand how the bulk of available money for sex education was handed over to abstinence programs with George W. Bush in the White House and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. What is harder to comprehend is why, with Democrats now in charge of Congress, funding for abstinence-only education appears likely to continue and maybe even increase.

Democrats have long criticized the programs as ineffective in combating teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, because they don't include instruction in the use of condoms. But now that Democrats are in a position to do something about that, they seem to have retreated.

While the latest study clearly shows that abstinence programs don't work, it also shows what does: comprehensive sex education. According to the report, those programs have had "positive outcomes," including teenagers "delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and increasing condom or contraceptive use."

The study also sought to debunk some of the popular myths propagated by promoters of abstinence-only education. For example, it is untrue that comprehensive sex education promotes promiscuity, encourages teens to have sex sooner or sends a confusing message about sex to adolescents.

Instead, according to the study, comprehensive sex education improves teens' knowledge about the risks and consequences of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and gives teens greater confidence in their ability to say "no" to unwanted sex.

We have seen multiple examples of this administration's indifference and even hostility toward valid science when it might contradict preconceived beliefs or rile the conservative GOP base. And the Republican Congress, in most cases, went along.

But how can Democrats, who have opposed the funding monopoly that abstinence programs have enjoyed, now do nothing? How can school districts nationwide continue to sponsor these programs when study after study shows they are a useless waste of money?

Here's a novel idea: Fund the sex education programs that work and quit funding those that don't.