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Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2002 / 17 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

David Limbaugh

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Consumer Reports

Demoting abstinence | The New Jersey Education Association invited three experts on teenage sexual activity to speak at its annual convention but withdrew the invitation when it discovered they promote the abstinence message.

The New Jersey Coalition for Abstinence Education, an outreach of the New Jersey Family Policy Counsel, was scheduled to present a workshop for teachers at the convention, as were New Jersey doctors Joanna Mohn, M.D., and James Thompson, M.D.

NJCAE's director, Bernadette Vissani, expressed concern that the abstinence perspective was being censored. (She was talking about private, not government censorship.)

While no state is immune from problems related to teenage sexual behavior, New Jersey has experienced greater problems than most states. The problems were so severe that the New Jersey legislature passed a law that mandates the stressing of abstinence when sex education is taught in public schools. And though the law doesn't require the (private) teacher's union to arm teachers with the facts or teaching methods on abstinence, professional accountability suggests that it should. After all, the union's members (teachers) are public employees who teach in public schools.

But why did the union revoke the NJCAE's invitation? Its spokeswoman, Karen Joseph, said the union prefers comprehensive sex education, whereas the NJCAE employs an abstinence-only approach. "The abstinence-only approach is unrealistic," said Joseph. "It's the same as saying, 'If we prohibit driving, we will eliminate all traffic accidents.' While that's true, it's unrealistic. We should be teaching safe driving and providing people with tools that will bring about safe driving. The same thing applies here."

But is it the same? Put aside the differences in the relative necessity of driving vs. that of teenage recreational sex. Do driver-education teachers downplay the dangers in driving? I don't think so. I specifically remember viewing horror films in high school about the hazards of reckless driving. Plus, the risks are common knowledge anyway.

This is where Joseph's analogy breaks down. Her vaunted "comprehensive" sex education does not adequately, if at all, alert children to many of the potential consequences of teenage sex. I doubt that comprehensive sex education strongly emphasizes that condoms have a 15 percent failure rate for both pregnancy and HIV transmission. Nor does it likely reveal there is no scientific proof that condoms protect against certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as HPV (which is the major cause of cervical cancer - a disease that kills approximately 5,000 American women each year).

And it is misleading to suggest that the NJCAE teaches "abstinence-only." According to Vissani, its approach is abstinence-centered but does not omit information about contraceptives. It shares scientific information on the actual health risks associated with teenage sex and attempts to correct the dangerous myths that exist about "protected" sex. It stresses that teenage sexual activity itself is high-risk behavior, and it aims to reduce that behavior.

The scandal of the comprehensive approach is that it puts kids at greater risk of pregnancy and disease by downplaying abstinence and promoting the use of condoms without informing kids about the real health risks involved. Don't tell me they don't encourage the behavior when they call it "protected" sex. (We've had 25 years of this comprehensive sex education, by the way, and have seen the dire consequences from teenage sex skyrocket.)

It is outrageous for adults simply to say, "We know you kids are going to do this, so we'll help you out." Many of these same people advocate total abstinence with drugs and alcohol, knowing that some kids will do them anyway. What's the difference?

Promoting "protected sex" gives kids the false sense of security that by using condoms they are insulating themselves from risk. It enables risky behavior. If kids (and their parents) better understood the risks involved in casual sex, they would probably be less cavalier about it. Indeed, research has documented that abstinence-centered education does work to reduce sexual activity rates, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage abortion rates, the number of children born into single-parent families and welfare costs. Why not give kids a fair shot at it?

Even if the New Jersey teacher's union disagrees, shouldn't it at least be willing to expose its teachers to legitimate opinions from both sides of the issue? Or does its ideology compel it to silence the other side - the one that is backed up with empirical evidence? Sadly, it's just another example of intolerance and close-mindedness by self-styled progressives. But this one has deadly consequences.

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David Limbaugh, a columnist and attorney practicing in Cape Girardeau, Mo., is the author of the just-released exposť about corruption in the Clinton-Reno Justice Department, "Absolute Power." Send your comments to him by clicking here.