During the 1960s, the John Birch Society, an ultraconservative organization, pushed schools to eliminate sex education programs in classrooms, charging that the classes were “smut,” “immoral,” and “a filthy communist plot” to poison the minds of American children. By the end of the 1970s, only the District of Columbia and three states—Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey—required that sex education be taught in public schools. The decline in sex education programs in the 1970s was accompanied by a steady increase in the teen sex rate and out-of-wedlock births. When the AIDS epidemic began to expand its reach into America’s schools in the 1980s, parents and educators decided that they needed to teach their children about the realities of sex and disease. By December 1997, nineteen states and the District of Columbia required schools to teach sexuality education, and thirty-four states and the District of Columbia required instruction about HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
In the mid-1990s, teen sex and illegitimacy became a focus of concern for conservatives who were trying to reform the welfare system. They charged that the welfare system rewarded premarital sex and out-ofwedlock births by granting benefits to unwed mothers. The best way to reduce the welfare rolls, and therefore illegitimacy, they argued, was to emphasize abstinence-only sex education programs in schools. In 1996, Congress included in its welfare reform act a provision to encourage states to require abstinence-only sex education programs in their schools. Congress authorized grants of $250 million over five years to states that required school-based abstinence-only sex education programs. In addition, the five states that showed the largest drop in teen pregnancy without a corresponding increase in the abortion rate would split an additional $400 million.
The 1996 legislation is very specific about what the abstinence-only programs must and must not teach. Under the law, states are mandated to teach that “abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard”; that “abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other
associated health problems”; that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity”; that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects”; and that “bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.” Furthermore, the law prohibits the states from using any of the grant money to teach about contraception or about how students can protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
McIlhaney and his followers contend that abstinence programs are effective at reducing the teen sex and teen pregnancy rates. For example, they point to a Chicago middle school in which each class had several girls who were pregnant every year. But after three years of an abstinence program, the school graduated three classes in a row in which no girls were pregnant. In Washington, D.C., only 5 percent of the girls in the Best Friends program had ever had sexual intercourse, compared to 63 percent citywide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed in June 1998 that the national teen pregnancy rate has been falling since 1990. The center reported that the teen pregnancy rate between 1990 and 1995 dropped from 55 percent to 50 percent without a corresponding increase in the abortion rate. Supporters cite this trend in the falling teen birth rate to support their argument that abstinence-only education is effective.
Supporters of comprehensive sex education programs, in which students are taught about birth control methods and how to protect themselves against STDs, contend that abstinence-only programs are ineffective. Most schools with abstinence-only programs had not implemented the curriculum by 1995, they assert, so the programs cannot take credit for reducing the teen pregnancy rate. Furthermore, according to some sex educators, statistics show that more teens, not fewer, are having sex. The pregnancy rate has declined because more teens are using birth control, they maintain, not because fewer teens are having sex. In fact, birth control proponents point out that the number of teenagers who used condoms during their first sexual experience tripled between 1975 and 1995, from 18 percent to 54 percent.
The CDC contends that birth control methods are much more reliable than their critics claim. Condoms are “highly effective” against AIDS when used correctly and consistently, the center asserts, and fail less than 2 percent of the time. Henry Foster, Bill Clinton’s advisor on teen pregnancy, maintains that teens who are not taught the facts about contraception “don’t have the facts on how to protect themselves, yet they are bombarded with media messages” that urge them to “just do it.” In addition, many sex educators believe that the anti-contraception message may give youth the impression that all forms of safe sex are ineffective, thus leading teens to stop using condoms and other forms of birth control altogether. Such a move would lead to higher pregnancy and STD rates, sex educators claim.
Comprehensive sex education advocates also dispute claims that abstinence-only programs are effective at reducing teen sex and pregnancy rates. Douglas Kirby, a sex education researcher who studied thirtythree sex education programs, found that all six of the abstinence-only programs in his study failed to delay sexual activity. The best documented abstinence-only sex education program was used by California schools from 1992 to 1995. The state spent $15 million over three years teaching abstinence-only to 187,000 middle school students. Kirby found the students who had not participated in abstinence-only classes were no less likely to postpone sexual intercourse or prevent pregnancies or STDs than students who had participated in abstinence-only classes. Kirby’s study also found that comprehensive sex education programs do not promote sexual activity. According to Kirby, “Sexuality- and HIV-education curricula do not increase sexual intercourse, either by hastening the onset of intercourse, increasing the frequency of intercourse, or increasing the number of sexual partners.”
Most sex educators agree that the most effective programs in reducing teen sex and teen pregnancy combine the information on values from the abstinence curricula and the safe sex information from comprehensive sex education programs. Moreover, polls show that most parents want their children to be taught about contraception. However, this consensus has not stopped the debate over which type of sex education should be taught in public schools. At Issue: Sex Education examines the morality and effectiveness of abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex education programs, as well as other sexuality issues.