Saturday, February 21, 2009

Back to bake sales for abstinence-only

It almost makes me want to buy a cupcake for the cause.

Pursuant to the Democrats' sweep of Congress and now the new face in the White House, the "abstinence-only" movement is on its own.

When dominant in Washington, Republicans couldn't find extra money to devote to cleaner water, security-exposed ports or levees that worked. They could, however, find ever-mounting millions for sexual abstinence programs. This funding continued though study after study found abstinence-only approaches of dubious value, particularly when serving as alternatives to comprehensive sex education, which is another word for basic biology.

Comprehensive sex education would, at age-appropriate levels, inform youngsters about contraception — how the birth-control pill works, or the IUD, or injections of Depo Provera.

Abstinence-only programs don't address such things, except to advise students on the general fallibility of birth control. Condoms are treated as a public enemy on a par with AIDS.

The McLennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project — MCCAP — at one time was rolling in dough, roughly $1 million a year, to foster abstinence programs in schools and otherwise to spread the message.

Now it's on the ropes because grants have run out. Fundraisers are planned.

I'll admit to being of two minds about MCCAP's efforts. On one hand, its well-produced TV commercials and eye-catching billboards have conveyed important messages about sexuality, peer pressure and making good decisions.

On the other hand, presenting abstinence training as an alternative to reproductive biology was and is a bad idea.

Now the high tide for abstinence education has ebbed. With it — the return of real sex education? We can only hope.

This is not the only front where the absolutism of abstinence has lost precedence. And good for us all.

President Obama has reversed policies that undermined international family planning efforts that the United States used to lead.

Now, instead of "just say no," the message our leadership will facilitate will be, "Let's be real — and smart." It will mean empowering family planning organizations to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Obama has reversed the rule against funding international organizations that so much as advocate abortion rights.

Of course, these were the organizations, like the International Planned Parenthood Federation, that do the most to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies, thereby entirely obviating the abortion dilemma.

That self-defeating contradiction never bothered proponents of the Reagan-era gag rule in the slightest.

Someone will say that Obama's directive now means taxpayer dollars will fund abortion. Nope. That's against the law.

We can trust that in addition to promoting contraception, family planning associations will hammer home the dangers of unchecked promiscuity in the age of AIDS.

The health benefits of abstinence before marriage cannot be denied. But abstinence only? That is called living in denial.

Locally, I would support the efforts of abstinence-information crusaders as long as their efforts weren't used to supplant real sex education.

By golly, I'd buy a blintz for the cause.

But when it comes to helping young people understand their bodies and regulate their urges, my tax dollar is better invested in programs that answer all the questions they have, not programs that make some of the answers off-limits.

John Young is opinion page editor for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

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