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Sex-ed for the masses

Christine O’Donnell was recently seen in a clip on MSNBC threatening to stop everyone in America from having sex. While I enjoy imagining one of my favorite politicians to date trying to put a stop to sex on a college campus, the more pressing concern is found in the form of sex education. We all know that the Tea Party is home to many people who enjoy making moral statements. Government is bad. Taxes are bad. Marriage equality is really bad. Religious tolerance is bad. And now sex is bad.

And I disagree. Sex isn’t bad. However, there are certainly unfortunate aspects of it – painting with a broad brush, for example, teenage pregnancy is bad. And without a doubt, sex education in this country should be devoted to the prevention of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. But I wanted to take a moment and remember the sex education we were given under the Bush administration. President Bush repeatedly denied federal funding for effective comprehensive sex education programs.

The 2009 budget proposal presented by the Bush administration when it was thankfully headed out of office included $204 million in funding requests for abstinence-only education programs. The plan also included $3.3 billion dollars in cuts to Title X family planning (also known as “Planned Parenthood,” among other things).

I don’t know if you know much about Planned Parenthood, but I can tell you there’s a good reason it has become synonymous with reproductive health care. It provides a diverse set of services to over three million people in the United States, including contraceptives, cancer screening, pregnancy testing and counseling, testing and treatment of STIs, sex education, vasectomies, and abortion services.

I don’t want to join our national shouting match – I just want to make the argument that, regardless of your personal beliefs, everyone should be free to make their own choice when it comes to unplanned pregnancy. And this is precisely what was denied to us under the Bush administration. The Global Gag Rule required all non-governmental organizations that receive funding from the government to not provide or promote abortion services.

Abstinence-only education reappeared in a study earlier this year. This study flew in the face of a wide body of existing research that told us abstinence-only education doesn’t work, and comprehensive sex education does. Comprehensive sex education (or ‘abstinence plus’) refers here to programs that give students information about contraceptives and abortion in equal measure with abstinence.

The University of Pennsylvania study released in February followed 662 African-American students for two years after taking a custom abstinence-only education program. Only about 33 percent of students enrolled in this program began having sex within the two-year period.

Make no mistake – this was a very encouraging study. It means there may yet be a way to teach sex education to kids who need to hear an emphasis on abstinence in a modern culture that spends a lot of time highlighting and encouraging sex. But the program they studied was fundamentally different from federally funded abstinence-only education programs. It did not encourage abstinence until marriage. It did not cast sex in a negative light, nor repeatedly question the effectiveness of contraceptives. Finally, it contained only medically accurate information. These are not things that could be said about our federally funded abstinence-only programs.

There certainly still are populations that need to be informed about contraceptives, however: the 33 percent of those students who went on to have sex. There is another: the untold thousands of American students who routinely have unprotected sex and suffer from STIs and unplanned pregnancies. Crucially, the study did not have any information concerning the overall population of high school students. According to the Center for Disease Control, as of 2009, 46 percent of high school students had ever had sex and 34 percent of sexually active high school students reported that they did not use a condom during their last sexual intercourse.

Everyone should be reminded of the risk of voting for a Tea Party candidate of any kind. Dubya was a wonderful example of a conservative politician unable to stray from a hyper-conservative party line, a party line determined by the same right-wing moralists running for Congress this year. The risk of losing a Democratic majority in the House is that the budget resolution will have to pass a Republican House instead – and we can be sure that the likes of Christine O’Donnell and Jim DeMint will never vote for abstinence-plus sexual education.

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