Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Abstinence Only Sex Education

The Bush Administration has made it a tradition to first decide on a policy, then to go to experts in the field and say, "Now, tell me what I can use."

We can see this policy in action when we look back on the decision to invade Iraq. We can also see it applied to the issue of global warming.

This is not just the policy of the Bush Administration. This is what a whole subculture that the Bush Administration relies on as its base thinks of as intellectual competence.

We are also starting to see how costly it is. Iraq has, so far, cost us killed and wounded, as well as 300 billion. The cost of global warming could easily run into trillions of dollars and destroy several smaller countries and whole provinces of some larger countries.

They also apply this model of intellectual competence to the issue of abstinence-only education, with the same type of disastrous results.

Recently, with respect to legislation for federally funded abstinence-only education, the American Medical Association said:

AMA oppose federal funding of community-based abstinence-only sex education programs and instead support federal funding of comprehensive sex education programs that teach about contraceptive choices and safe sex while also stressing the importance of abstinence in preventing unwanted teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

It adopts this position as a body of professionals who are experts in their fields, who have the capacity to read and understand the scientific findings in this field and a dedicated purpose of implementing those finds.

A rational person always obtains his advice from those who are experts in the field. He obtains his legal advice from lawyers, has engineers create his building plans, and trusts to doctors to provide the best available medical advice.

Moral Responsibility of Inferior Options

What is the moral responsibility of a person who chooses an inferior option?

If a doctor has two procedures available for treating a disease, and he picks the procedure with a survival rate of 50%, and abandons the procedure with a survival rate of 80%, then he is morally responsible for the deaths of those 30% he has not saved. Similarly, people who advocate abstinence-only sex education are morally responsible for the harms suffered by promoting the less effective method of preventing those harms.

So, to the degree that abstinence-only education routinely produces poorer results than other forms of sex education, those who advocate abstinence-only programs are morally responsible for those inferior results. This amounts to real human lives and suffering that is on their hands.

Other Moral Factors

Now, it is certainly relevant to ask whether a procedure that saves 80% of the people is wrong for some other reason, forcing us to use the worse but morally permissible alternative. For example, if a vaccine that is 80% effective involves the torture of unwilling subjects, it may not be morally permissible to harvest this option.

However, in this case, no such argument can be made.

Sex is a normal appetite like hunger and thirst, and no more wrong to satisfy than any other appetite. Among those who are not yet adults, the wrongness of sex rests entirely upon the risk – the chance that the child will do harm to himself or herself, and the interest that concerned people have to prevent harm. There is no moral relevance independent of this concern to prevent harm.

Some religions might have a doctrine that disagrees with this. Then again, some religions have a prohibition on eating pork or eating at all during daylight hours during Ramadan. Yet, the Jew may mandate that nobody eat pork. Nor would it make sense for him to argue that others eating pork is an attack on his religion. Similarly, the Muslim may not reasonably argue that anybody who eats between sunrise and sunset is engaging in some sort of “war on Islam.”

If a religious doctrine has social consequences, such as prohibitions on murder and theft, then an imposition on others may be justified. However, the fact that abstinence-only education has no effect on preventing harm shows that it has more in common with religious prohibitions on eating pork or eating during Ramadan than it has with murder and theft. It is one of those religious prescriptions that may not legitimately be forced on others.

Teaching Encourages Wrongdoing

I hear some in who accept abstinence-only religions claim that teaching children about safe sex tells them that this is okay. According to this argument, teaching adolescents about safe sex implies teaching them that sex is permissible, which contradicts the religious teachings of some parents.

However, every religion (in a society that seeks peace among different religions) has to put up with the fact that their children will encounter people who do not share their purely religious prohibitions. The Jew must recognize that the grocery stores sell pork, which will suggest to their children that eating pork is not wrong. Muslims in a free and religiously tolerant society must raise their children in which others do not accept a prohibition on eating during daylight during Ramadan. In a religiously tolerant and free society, all children receive a mixed message. This is a poor argument for instituting religious bigotry.

The arguments for abstinence-only sex education are as poorly founded as arguments for banning pork from school lunches and banning school lunches entirely during Ramadan.

Majority Rules

I then hear abstinence-only advocates argue, "We are the majority religion. Freedom of religion gives us the right to appeal to our religious doctrines in order to determine what laws we support and prohibit. If yours was a majority religion, you would get to decide the laws. But you are the minority, so you had better just sit down and shut up.”

This argument makes me think of the recent case in Afghanistan where the people sought to execute Abdul Rahman for the crime of converting from Islam. If majority religions may impose their practices on others, then certainly the minority religions in Afghanistan should simply sit down and shut up. Yet, I did not hear Christians taking this position. In fact, they screamed about religious freedom and tolerance.

As they should have done.

But many are hypocrites. They argue “majority rules” where they are a majority and only respect “minority rights” if they are a minority.

This makes me want to ask, “Will you people please try to adopt a consistent moral standard and stick with it?"

The Guaranteed Safety Argument

Another argument often heard from abstinence-only advocates rests on the fact that abstinence is the only guaranteed way to prevent getting pregnant or getting a sexually transmitted disease.

This is true.

It is also true that abstinence from swimming, boating, or any activity in or near standing water is the only guaranteed way to prevent drowning. Abstaining from flight is the only way to guarantee that one will not die in an airplane crash. Abstaining from all forms of human contact is the only way to guarantee that one will not catch a great many diseases from meningitis to the common flu.

All of this is true, but nobody argues that we should ban swimming, boating, flying, or all forms of human contact. Instead of banning these activities, we insist that those who take part in these activities take precautions to reduce the risks. We recommend or require that those who go near the water wear lifejackets. We mandate safety rules when flying, and encourage people to wash their hands and take other precautions to prevent the spread of disease when in public.

In short, we do not demand abstinence from water activities, we teach safety. We do not demand abstinence from flying, we teach safety. We do not demand abstinence from social interaction, we teach safety.

However, in the area of sex, these people demand a different set of rules.

This makes me want to ask again, “Will you people please try to adopt a consistent moral standard and stick with it?"


The Bush Administration has adopted an irrational pattern of deciding on a policy and pursuing it in the face of all evidence. When they decided to invade Iraq, they ignored the experts, and we can see the cost. On the issue of global warming, they decided on a policy, ignored the experts, and we are starting to see what this will cost the world.

The issue of sex education is another area where they first determined their policy, then cherry-picked their evidence. Here is another issue where their backwards way of thinking will pile up another set of casualties and costs. Most of these casualties will be kids -- this is who will suffer the cost of their backwards thinking. Imagine how much better off we would be if people learned to follow the pattern set by the American Medical Association – first, look at the evidence; then, establish policy.


Melantha Cathleen said...

Good Article.

Anonymous said...

I don’t believe in Sex-end being taught in schools on principle and I also don’t believe in teenagers having sex. In a perfect world, parents would teach their children sex-ed and pass on their sexual values at home and not leave it for the schools. But we do not live in a perfect world. And we know teenagers will have intercourse and that just telling them “don’t do it” is inadequate. Bristol Palin is a prominent example.

But just because a group of Christians don’t want to teach their children the facts of live doesn’t give the government the right to impose an abstinence only world view on the rest of us. It’s vitally important that children receive age-appropriate sex-ed at school, including learning about birth control. If Christian parents disagree, they have the choice to excuse their children from such classes. They also have the option to home school, or send their children to a Christian school where abstinence only is taught. The whole abstinence only view in effect forces Christian values down the throats of public school children, many of whom may not subscribe to Judeo-Christian ideas of morality.

It is a blending of church and state that makes me extremely uncomfortable, and I can’t help but think a McCain-Palin administration will bring more of the same in other arenas of public life.

elishebabb said...

Abstinence works for the individual. Fasting is healthy. Pigs keep farms clean like shellfish clean the ocean. Eating & drinking are necessary for the survival of each individual. Each individual does not have to have sexual relations to survive. If everyone was abstinent until monogamous lifelong traditional marriage..there would be no STDs.