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Has US abstinence policy failed?

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

Merchandise counter at an event organised by the US teen celibacy group Silver Ring Thing
Critics of abstinence programmes say they do not cut teen pregnancy rates

US lawmakers are investigating whether to cut government funding for health education programmes that promote sexual abstinence until marriage.

The move follows a report earlier this year from America's leading health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which revealed one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease.

Opponents of abstinence education say the approach ignores the fact that teenagers are sexually active and fails to give them accurate medical information or advice on safer sex.

"We get sex-ed classes in school and that should be where teens get the right information - but that isn't happening," says 15-year-old Mildred, from Arizona, who volunteers as a peer educator with the pro-choice organisation Planned Parenthood.

"They don't touch on subjects like sexuality, STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), birth control - it's not allowed because of abstinence-only education. It leaves you on a cliff-hanger - and a lot of teenagers become sexually active in their middle school years."

"Teens are curious and they want to experiment and if they know what's out there and they have the correct information, they're going to know how to protect themselves and prevent an unwanted pregnancy and an STD," adds Maryland high school student Melissa.

"Putting up a wall and saying 'don't have sex' makes them more curious and wanting to know what it is. But if you tell them the straight facts they're going to know how to protect themselves. It's about taking care of yourself."

Teen pregnancy

Planned Parenthood estimates that two thirds of teenagers will have experienced sexual intercourse by the time they leave school.

And with some 750,000 teenage pregnancies a year, America has one of the highest teen birth rates in the developed world.

"This national programme which has wasted $1.5bn (750m) of tax money is a failure and our teens are paying the price," says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

If we can learn to control the most basic of drives - the sex drive - for good, then we can control drugs, gangs, alcohol and abusive anger
Roger Norman
'Wonderful Days' abstinence programme

"We've been wasting money on programmes that don't work and we're seeing the consequences every single day."

State governments receive federal money they must match to fund abstinence programmes.

At least 17 states have opted out of the system and others have suspended funding while Congress investigates whether such programmes work.

Critics say there is no evidence that they delay sexual activity and teenagers who have taken a vow of virginity are less likely to use protection if they break their promise.

Religious right

Roger Norman, a Texas lawyer, describes himself as being part of the religious right.

He runs an organization called Wonderful Days which does not receive government funding but teaches abstinence as part of the health curriculum in some local schools.

"I am convinced that abstinence is the only way for kids," he says. "You begin by teaching the consequences of bad behaviour and the benefits of proper behaviour and you do that in a way that a child can grasp.

"Self control leads to a happy, joyful life. If we can learn to control the most basic of drives - the sex drive - for good, then we can control drugs, gangs, alcohol and abusive anger."

His lessons promote marriage and virginity - for both partners - as an ideal.

A lot of the young people I know who go around have experiences with lots of different people are just preparing themselves for not knowing how to be committed to somebody
Ashley, 18

They emphasise disease as a consequence of sex before marriage.

Some of his former students say that sexual abstinence is sensible and beneficial.

Eighteen-year-old Ashley says she believes teenagers who experiment with sex are laying the foundations for troubled relationships later in life.

"At some point everybody ends up getting married. Everybody wants commitment at some point and nobody likes to be cheated on.

"But a lot of the young people I know who go around have experiences with lots of different people are just preparing themselves for not knowing how to be committed to somebody.

"Once you get into the practice of doing whatever you want, it's hard to change when you're older."

Sixteen-year-old Josh says he relies on friends to help him stay abstinent.

"I have a lot of close friends and we pretty much agree on the same thing so we keep each other in line most of the time. Yes, it's difficult, but my friends are there and I'm there for them, and it gets easier if you have friends who agree with you."

"I'm pretty confident I can keep my abstinence vows," says 15-year-old Kirsten. "It was pretty hard reaching that decision, because living in this world today, it's almost expected of you to 'do it'. But with my religious upbringing and convictions and commonsense, it's really not that hard."

"Secondary virgins"

Teenagers who do have sex before marriage are given another chance by becoming "secondary virgins".

"Of course, if you view virginity as number one, and you've slept with someone, of course it's going to be different and you can never go back - but that doesn't mean there's no tomorrow," explains Ashley.

"Every day is a new decision and abstinence is not one you make once. You're going to have to make this decision over and over again. So if you fail once, you get back up and you try again."

The row over abstinence education is part of a much wider debate in the US about "family values".

Many conservatives are concerned that "American values" are being eroded.

But their opponents believe that the conservatives have an overly influential political voice, particularly within the current Bush administration.

For liberals, the campaign to roll back the abstinence programmes is part of a broader struggle against what they regard as reactionary elements in the US government.

Pro-abstinence campaigners say it is unfair to blame abstinence programmes for America's teenage health crisis.

Valerie Huber, chief executive of the National Abstinence Education Association, says only one in four schools teaches abstinence - the vast majority use comprehensive sex education.

That, she says is the real reason for the rise in STDs and teenage pregnancies.

"We would argue that abstinence education is not an ideological approach. We know that in the area of teen sexual activity, abstinence is the optimal approach.

"Compare this with healthful eating. We know that obesity is rising in America. That doesn't mean though that we minimise the optimal health message."

"We still stress good eating habits, we still stress exercise, knowing that, unfortunately, many Americans are not going to listen."

If Congress does decide to cut government funding for abstinence programmes, they will still continue.

Many enjoy public support and will likely find money elsewhere.




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