Editorial of The Times
Posted May 5, 2018 6:49 p.m. EDT
Updated May 5, 2018 6:54 p.m. EDT
The New Era of Abstinence
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The administration of Donald Trump — who had a child out of wedlock after cheating on his first wife, and is in a legal battle with a porn star who says she had sex with him not long after his third wife gave birth — is promoting abstinence with a zeal perhaps never before seen from the federal government.
Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services is quietly advancing an anti-science, ideological agenda. The department last year prematurely ended grants to some teen pregnancy prevention programs, claiming weak evidence of success. More recently, it set new funding rules that favor an abstinence-only approach. In reality, programs that use creative ways to educate teenagers about contraception are one reason teen pregnancy in the United States has plummeted in recent years.
The administration is promoting a “just say no” approach to adults as well as to teenagers. It’s poised to shift Title X family planning dollars — funds largely intended to help poor adult women around the United States get birth control — toward programs that advocate abstinence outside of marriage, as well as unreliable forms of birth control like the rhythm method (though the health agency might have to reverse course if either of the lawsuits filed against it last week by Planned Parenthood and other women’s health advocates are successful).
Nor are its sights limited to the United States. As BuzzFeed News reported, administration officials who attended recent closed-door meetings at the United Nations were preoccupied with abstinence. Bethany Kozma, a senior adviser for gender equality and women’s empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development, called America a “pro-life nation,” stunning delegates from other countries.
The administration’s approach defies all common sense. There is no good evidence that abstinence-only education prevents or delays young people from having sex, leads them to have fewer sexual partners or reduces rates of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. And given that almost all Americans engage in premarital sex, this vision of an abstinent-outside-of-marriage world is simply at odds with reality.
Abstinence-only education also spreads misinformation. A 2004 government report found that many such curriculums undersold the effectiveness of condoms and made unscientific assertions, like a claim that a 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person.” This kind of propaganda also promotes gender stereotypes. “Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships,” one curriculum taught students. “Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.”
Public health experts strongly recommend a comprehensive approach to sex education, one that informs young people about abstinence as well as about various forms of contraception and other aspects of sexual health.
The Trump administration has lurched rightward, not just compared with the Obama administration, which funded some abstinence-only programs, but even compared with the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush eras, when federal funding for abstinence was much more robust than under Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, officials pushing these changes — including Valerie Huber, who once ran a national organization dedicated to promoting abstinence and now leads the Title X program at the health agency — have engaged in a savvy rebranding campaign. They use innocuous sounding terms like “sexual risk avoidance” and “healthy relationships” because they know “abstinence” can sound harsh and retrograde.
Disinformation is at the center of this agenda. It makes it more difficult for women to acquire the knowledge they need to control if and when they become pregnant — a problem that is exacerbated by the administration’s hostility toward abortion rights. Beyond that, abstinence-only education keeps all people who are subjected to it in the dark about critical aspects of their health, and treats a normal part of life — sexuality, and women’s sexuality in particular — as aberrant and shameful.
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