Originally created 09/17/97

Abstinence



Congress is shelling out $250 million to keep teens from having sex.

The new welfare-reform law earmarks $50 million a year toward abstinence-only sex education. No talk of safe sex. No talk of sexually transmitted diseases. Just teaching kids to wait until they're married.

Each state has to match the government $3 for every $4 it receives. Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say 47 states and the District of Columbia intend to apply for part of that money. Georgia has asked for 1.4 million. South Carolina wants $811,000.

Richmond County schools have taught an abstinence-only sex-ed program since 1987, says Joe Moore, science and health physical education coordinator for the school system. Three years ago, the state decided that all schools should teach abstinence-based sex education.

Georgia's teen pregnancy rate is dropping, but it's still the third-highest in the country, according to the New York-based Allan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization dealing with women's health and reproductive issues.

"Abstinence is the only way to go. It's the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and disease," Mr. Moore says. "Abstinence is 100 percent effective."

But are the programs?

The birth rate for Georgia's teens ages 15 to 19 dropped from 76.3 per thousand in 1991 to 71.1 per thousand in 1995, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. For South Carolina teens, the birth rate went from 72.9 per thousand in 1991 to 65.1 per thousand in 1995. Georgia's rate has gone down every year that it has had the abstinence-only programs, but its teen birth rate is dropping 25 percent slower than the teen birth rate for the United States, says T.J. Maxwell, statistician for the National Center for Health Statistics. No one has evaluated whether the decrease is due to the abstinence-only education. But Mr. Maxwell says that birth rates in some states without abstinence-only programs have dropped three times as much as Georgia's.

"Kids are gonna do it anyway," says Amelia Beasley, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. "You can't teach people that are having sex to not have sex. They just won't listen."

But they should, says the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Texas.

"Medical research points us toward the wisdom of encouraging adolescents to adopt the practice of abstinent lifestyles until they find that person they want to spend the rest of their lives with," says Dr. Richard Tompkins, director of education and research at the Medical Institute for Sexual Health. "The rates of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy are so tremendously high, even with contraceptions, that to advocate anything different is problematic for us."

About 3 million teens get sexually transmitted diseases each year, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

And more than 600,000 babies have been born to teen-age mothers this year, according to the National Teen Pregnancy Clock sponsored by the Campaign for Our Children.

Shannon Allen, 30, wants her 9-year-old son to be abstinent. She wants him to be taught that sex outside of marriage is not a good idea. But, she wants him to be educated about safe sex too.

"There's got to be a happy medium," she says.

That may be what South Carolina schools have.

South Carolina schools have been teaching abstinence only since 1988, says Polly Goldston, health education coordinator for Aiken County public schools. They don't teach safe sex to high school kids, but they do teach birth control under the umbrella of "family planning." They talk about condom failure rates, and they tell students what's available so that in the future, when they're married, they'll be able to decide when to have kids, Ms. Goldston says.

They don't tell them that they'll be fine if they use a condom - but they do tell teens how condoms and other contraceptives work.

"It's much easier just to go with the hormones," Ms. Goldston says. "Now a lot of them are taking time to think through that they don't want to be a mother or a father or catch a disease. They understand better how easy it is to get pregnant and get somebody pregnant. They have a lot more knowledge of basic facts than they used to have. ... Most kids know somebody who's raising a child or who's a father. They've seen the consequences."

Opponents of abstinence-only sex education, including Planned Parenthood and the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, say money dedicated to abstinence-only sex education will go to waste.

"We wish policy-makers would be realistic; there's no abstinence-only programs that have proven results," says Mary Beth Pierucci, external affairs coordinator for the Augusta Planned Parenthood clinic. "The money would be much better spent on responsible, balanced sex-ed and family-planning programs that have a track record."

The only thing abstinence-only advocates lack is proof that their courses will be effective, says a July article in The Nation.

Researcher Douglas Kirby recently concluded that a major abstinence-only education effort in California didn't work at all. The Atlanta-developed program, Education Now and Babies Later, had no effect on teens' sexual intentions or behavior 17 months after it started, Mr. Kirby said.

"We didn't expect it to have a major impact," said Mr. Kirby, director of research at Education Training and Research Associates in Santa Cruz, Calif., a nonprofit organization. His study was funded by the California Office of Family Planning. "I was surprised that it did not have any impact at all. ... The state of California spent millions of dollars on a program that didn't work. The curriculum did not delay the onset of sexual intercourse, which was its goal."

Congress says the abstinence-only programs should focus on sex within marriage as the standard of American sexual activity and sex within marriage as the only healthy sexual activity.

"They're teaching that it's physically and psychologically damaging to have sex outside of marriage," says Ms. Pierucci.

That message alone may cause more damage than the sex, she says.

"That's disturbing because so many teens are doing it," she says. "It's damaging to their self-esteem and damaging to their image of what healthy sexuality is about. To somebody who makes that choice to have sex outside of marriage .. it's going to make them feel that what they're doing is wrong or dirty, and it doesn't have to be."

It may take more than $250 million to stop teens from having sex. The Nation reports that 73 percent of boys and 56 percent of girls have had sex by 18.

"Seven out of 10 teen-agers are already sexually active by the time they're 18 years old," said Joyce Walker Tyson, deputy director of communication and development for the Washington-based Advocates for Youth. "To teach abstinence only is ridiculous."

Most local teens interviewed think the program won't work. They would rather learn about all the options and make their own decisions.

"Safe sex is just fine," says Kerri Johnson, a 16-year-old senior at North Augusta High School. "You're not gonna keep anybody from doing it."

"It's not gonna work," says Amanda Ronan, an 18-year-old senior at Hephzibah High School. "All of my friends aren't virgins."

"The majority of my friends have had sex at least once or twice," says Summer Carpenter, 15, standing beside her in Augusta Mall. "My mom's always told me that if you're going to have sex, be safe."

"I knew about safe sex ..." Amanda starts to say.

"Before my mom even started to tell me about it," Summer says, finishing the sentence for her.

"Yeah," Amanda says. "You hear it from friends, and you hear it from school. And that's good."

BREAKOUT BOX STUFF

Pregnancy rates

Georgia females age 10-19

Year/Columbia County/Richmond County/State Total

1992 159 978 26,548

1993 179 925 25,776

1994 161 900 25,457

1995 167 868 25,755

1996 188 817 25,615

SOURCE: Georgia Department of Human Resources Division of Public Health Center for Health Information.

South Carolina females age 10-19

Year/Aiken County/State Total

1992 411 12,666

1993 369 12,018

1994 409 12,090

1995 427 11,818

1996 figures unavailable

SOURCE: South Carolina Office of Public Health Statistics and Information Systems Division of Biostatistics