The scurrilous sex-education ad released earlier this week by the McCain campaign wasn't just about dirty politics. It was also a rejection of comprehensive sex education programs that have proven to help protect young people's health and safety. What does McCain favor instead? Abstinence-only programs that have been thoroughly discredited--not only by the left, but also by half of America's state governments. Since September 2005, 25 states have rejected the government's Title V funds for abstinence-only education, fed up with relying on ineffective programs that have failed to improve young people's health.
One of the most definitive takedowns of abstinence-only education has been the Mathematica Policy Research study released in April 2007, which examined federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs over a nine-year period. According to the congressionally-mandated study:
Program recipients were no more likely than nonrecipients to delay sexual initiation, and when they did become sexually active, program recipients had the same number of sexual partners and were no more likely to use condoms or other forms of contraception.
Comprehensive sex ed, in contrast, has been a demonstrable success, "delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners, and increasing condom or contraceptive use," according to one 2007 study.
While federal funding continues to back these disproved, misleading, and deceptive programs, states are scrambling to fund interventions that will actually have an impact. A few weeks ago, I spoke with former New Mexico health secretary Michelle Lujan Grisham. The resource-poor state has one of the highest unwanted teenage pregnancy rates in the country, and in 2004, she explained that state officials were willing to give federally-funded abstinence-only education a try. "We had evidence that 30% of 6th grade boys were engaged in sexually based activities ... and we needed to do something before it was too late."
So New Mexico decided to use the federal abstinence-only funds to create a program for fifth-graders to help them "assess high-risk behaviors and to teach them techniques to say no, and resist peer pressure," with one section addressing "appropriate and inappropriate touching," Grisham says. But local conservative Christian activists assailed the program for focusing on younger children, and the federal government eventually threatened to pull out the funds.
Ultimately, Grisham says, "It was easier to say, forget it [to the funds] than allow the Bush administration to dictate what we were going to do." New Mexico was lucky enough to find a private foundation to support health education and sexual abuse-prevention programs that didn't meet the hidebound stipulations for federal funding. But not every state can expect to be so lucky. And if McCain ends up winning and governing by the standards laid out in his ad this week, policies aimed at promoting ideology over science would continue to jeopardize the health and safety of America's youth--kindergarteners included.