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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Abstinence education debate making its way to Congress

By Erin Roach
May 10, 2007

WASHINGTON (BP)--A leader in the national movement to promote abstinence education is asking Southern Baptists to contact their elected officials and voice their support of federally funded abstinence programs as Congress considers whether to renew the $50-million-a-year grants that expire in June.

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association in Washington, pointed to a Zogby International poll released May 3 which found that 78 percent of parents think sex education classes in public schools should place more emphasis on promoting abstinence than on condom and other contraceptive use.

"These results confirm broad-based support for abstinence education, including teaching teens about developing healthy relationships and increasing self-worth and self-control," Huber said of the poll, which was commissioned by NAEA. "While abstinence education has been continually misrepresented by its opponents, we were confident that parents would strongly prefer abstinence education over so-called 'comprehensive' sex education after they received full, accurate information about this common sense educational approach."

Though the atmosphere in Congress has changed with the new Democratic majority, things haven't changed across the country, Huber said.

"There are still moms and dads who want the best for their kids, and those moms and dads are also voters," she told Baptist Press. "So we're really hoping that the misinformation about abstinence education can be corrected."

A recent source of misinformation came in the form of a study authorized by Congress in 1997 and released by the Department of Health and Human Services in April. The study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, said students who participated in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not.

Huber said the Mathematica results should not be generalized to all current abstinence education programs because the study examined only four of more than 700 federally funded programs across the nation and the study began when Title V abstinence education programs were still in their infancy.

"The field of abstinence has significantly grown and evolved since that time and the results demonstrated in the Mathematica study are not representative of the abstinence education community as a whole," Huber said, adding that a conference hosted by HHS in March featured "at least 30 significant evaluation studies that demonstrated positive trends in teen abstinent behavior."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee could begin hearings as soon as the week of May 14, Huber said, on whether to reauthorize the Title V abstinence education program. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a leading opponent of abstinence programs and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is expected to hold hearings on abstinence education this spring.

Huber said NAEA has launched an aggressive information campaign to counter the misleading ideas Waxman and other abstinence opponents are perpetrating, but she called on Southern Baptists to help in the effort by contacting their congressmen and senators.

"We know that all politics are local, and although we're doing the work in Washington, D.C., with these members, the most convincing voice is that of their own constituents," Huber said.

Abstinence education supporters also can help distribute the findings of the Zogby poll by sharing them with their local schools, newspapers and people in decision-making positions, Huber added.

"There isn't a lot of time on this," she said, noting the June 30 expiration date for Title V funding.

Among the Zogby results constituents can share:

-- 83 percent of parents think it is important for their child to wait until they are married to have sex.

-- 93 percent of parents agree sex education should include a discussion about the limitations of condoms in preventing specific sexually transmitted diseases.

-- When parents become aware of what abstinence education versus comprehensive sex education actually teaches, support for abstinence programs jumps from 40 percent to 60 percent, while support for comprehensive programs drops from 50 percent to 30 percent.

-- At least 8 in 10 parents support the overall approach of abstinence education.

-- 2 out of 3 parents think that the importance of the "wait to have sex" message ends up being lost when programs demonstrate and encourage the use of contraception.

-- Parents want more funding given to abstinence education than to comprehensive sex education by a 3 to 1 margin.

Furthermore, parents overwhelmingly favored an age-appropriate discussion of contraceptive use while promoting abstinence as the healthiest choice, and most parents said they want their children to be taught the limitations of condoms in preventing pregnancy.

"This poll confirms that abstinence education is the preferred approach for the sex education of youth in America," Huber said.

Southern Baptists for years have been leaders in the battle for purity among the nation's teenagers through the True Love Waits abstinence campaign, co-founded by Richard Ross and Jimmy Hester in 1993.

Ross characterized the Mathematica study condemning abstinence education as "just more of the same -- the sounds of a dying culture trying to ignore its condition."

Hester, in comments to Baptist Press, noted how the programs examined by Mathematica differ from Southern Baptists' promotion of sexual purity.

"They are not able to address the spiritual dimensions of sexuality, and that is foundational to the approach True Love Waits takes in challenging students to remain sexually abstinent until marriage," Hester, a student ministry director at LifeWay Christian Resources, said. "Our sexuality is a complex mix of the physical, intellectual, social and spiritual dimensions of who we are as created by God. A thorough discussion of sexual issues and behavior needs to include all dimensions."

True Love Waits involves three primary elements: education, commitment and follow-up, Hester noted.

"Students need to know why it is important to remain abstinent until marriage -- education; they need to make and own a commitment to sexual purity -- commitment; and they need to make it known that they are living a life that expresses their commitment -- follow-up," Hester said. "The last part is important and requires constant affirmation and support from significant adults -- parents, leaders, coaches, etc. -- and peers over time. A one-time challenge and commitment to remain sexually abstinent is not enough, given the world our students live in each day."

For a closer look at the Zogby International poll on abstinence education, visit www.abstinenceassociation.org.

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