Texas has the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. It also has one of the country’s highest rates of repeat teen pregnancy. And it has the third-highest number of HIV diagnoses, according to recent CDC estimates. Yet despite these alarming statistics, the Lone Star state’s GOP-controlled House approved a budget amendment on Tuesday that would cut $3 million from HIV prevention programs and redirect the funds to even more abstinence-only education, the already ubiquitous and overwhelmingly ineffective method of (not) informing Texas students how to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
As if it weren’t bad enough that the legislature aims to cut millions of dollars for programs that are clearly needed to boost public health, the lawmaker who introduced the budget amendment has been clear about his motivations, which are personal (to say the least). Via the Associated Press:
Republican state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, a doctor and the amendment’s sponsor, at one point defended the change by telling the Texas House that he practiced abstinence until marriage. The first-term lawmaker said he hopes schoolchildren follow his example, saying, “What’s good for me is good for a lot of people.”
The lawmaker’s reasoning — “What’s good for me is good for a lot of people” — is actually startling common in states dominated by conservative politics. It’s the sort of reasoning that already dictates Texas’ approach to sex education, which was curtailed in yet another way on Tuesday night when legislators passed a separate amendment to ban so-called abortion “affiliates” from providing sex education materials in schools in an ongoing effort to target Planned Parenthood (unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, an amendment offered by Democrat Rep. Chris Turner that would require abstinence-only, sex ed programs to be medically accurate was voted down — because apparently the accuracy of the information is far less important than who is delivering it…?). It is the epitome of how the state’s lawmakers choose to address some of the most serious public health concerns, and it is clearly not working.
In fact, Spitzer even admitted as much after being confronted by the statistics on teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in his own state. “It may not be working well,” he said. “But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing.” (Spitzer — who is a doctor, by the way — had to be reminded that STI’s can be spread without having sex.)
But they actually aren’t “essentially the same thing” — not by a long shot. Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that abstinence-only education fails at every single thing it sets out to achieve: it doesn’t delay the initiation of sexual activity, and in some cases it can even lead to riskier sexual behavior. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), students who take abstinence pledges as part of their sex education curricula are six times more likely to have oral sex and four times more likely to have anal sex than their non-pledging peers. These teens are also one-third less likely to use contraceptives and ten percent less likely to use condoms if they do become sexually active, which most do at some point — nine out of ten teens who take a pledge of abstinence from sex before marriage break that pledge. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that communities with a higher proportion of “pledgers” have significantly higher overall STD rates than in other settings.
But in addition to its ineffectiveness, abstinence-only education is also categorically unfair to young people, as the authors of a Journal of Adolescent Health review article on abstinence policies and programs explain:
We believe that abstinence-only education programs, as defined by federal funding requirements, are morally problematic, by withholding information and promoting questionable and inaccurate opinions. Abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental rights to health, information, and life.
In contrast, an expansive body of research clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education programs. Adolescents and teens who receive comprehensive sex education are no more likely to engage in sexual behavior than those who receive abstinence-only education, but when they do initiate sexual activity they are far more likely to practice safe sex. That’s why leading public health and medical professional organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, support a comprehensive approach to educating young people about sex.
Despite the overwhelming failure of abstinence-only programs and the irrefutable superiority of comprehensive sex education, Congress has spent over $1.5 billion on abstinence-only programs over the past 25 years and continues to divert millions of taxpayer dollars annually to these unsuccessful programs, which have also been shown to use deception, misinformation, and shame as tactics to “educate” youth. While government cuts funding to programs across the board, abstinence-only programs have enjoyed over a 300 percent increase in federal funding since President Bush took office, from $80 million a year in 2001 to $176 million in 2007. Thankfully, the Obama administration has moved to provide more funding for effective comprehensive sex education, but abstinence-only programs still receive more than $100 million annually.
The Texas amendment still must make its way through Senate budget negotiations before it receives final approval as part of the state budget, but given that the state legislature is controlled by Republicans, it’s almost certain that the bill will pass. And just as certainly, it will have consequences. As the AIDS Research Institute warned in a 2002 review of sex education approaches in the United States:
The growing prominence of the abstinence-only approach will likely have serious unintended consequences by denying young people access to the information they need to protect themselves. And abstinence-only programs risk alienating the young people at highest risk of negative health outcomes by promoting a “one size fits all” vision of adolescence that matches the true experiences of only a minority of youth.