Government-funded abstinence-only education may finally be on its way out. Twelve years after the national program started, only slightly more than half the states are still on board, according to a June 24 Associated Press article. The rest decided in recent years to wash their hands clean of the poorly performing initiative, with New Mexico jumping on the common-sense bandwagon at the end of 2007.
Dr. Alfredo Vigil, our Department of Health secretary, said he wouldn’t again apply for federal abstinence-only funding in December. He explained his position in an Albuquerque Journal op-ed, writing that he values the tenets of abstinence education, but the federal program doesn't allow schools to give kids other necessary information as well: "We need to give scientific and complete information about how to protect against unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases."
Amen. The problem with abstinence-only funding is buried right in its name: abstinence-only education. States who accept the funding aren’t allowed to teach what many consider rudimentary sex ed. It means our kids are told if they have sex before marriage, they’re likely to suffer psychological and physical trauma (that’s actually part of the curriculum). It’s a recipe for an all-American cocktail of fear and confusion, and research shows it's far from effective.
According to the New Mexico Teen Pregnancy Coalition, teen birth rates actually rose for the first time in 15 years in 2006 (New Mexico was using the funding at that time and had done so since the program was instituted in 1996). In January, CBS News stated the trend wasn't unique to New Mexico—teen birth rates have risen for the first time in a decade and a half nationwide as well. Furthermore, a federally funded study released by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. in April 2007 looked into four different abstinence-only programs. Participants in those programs and non-participants alike had the same rate of sexual partners and the same median age for sexual activity.
Parents don’t like to think about their kids having sex at any age, especially when those kids are still in high school or younger. And the thought of teaching kids about the details of sex is scary: If we show them how to use a condom, then aren’t they going to use it? But that’s precisely the point—they are going to use it, or they’re at least more likely to. And if they’re going to have sex anyway ... .
The reality of the situation is that some kids are going to have sex when they’re young regardless of the sex education they receive. Whatever factors are involved in keeping kids from having sex, that’s not one of them. And if they’re going to have sex, they should be as safe about it as possible so they don’t end up like the one in four teen girls in this country with a sexually transmitted disease or the 750,000 teens in the U.S. that will get pregnant this year, according to Planned Parenthood.
New Mexico should be proud to be one of nearly half the states in the country that’s rejected a federal bribe to keep our kids ignorant to sex education, and it's reassuring to see that trend is growing. We’re smarter than that, and now our kids will be too.