Don't look for Texas to change its abstinence-only focus on sex education in public schools despite the renewed national debate fueled by the pregnancy of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's teen daughter.
Activists on both sides of the issue say Texas' philosophy is well-established, with the state receving more federal money for abstinence-only programs than any other state. About $17 million in federal funds is matched with $3 million in state funds annually.
Texas and New Mexico have the highest teen birth rates: 62 for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, according to a July report by Child Trends, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C. The national average is 41.9 births.
Several bills proposed for the 2009 Texas legislative session would expand sex education to include contraceptives. But supporter Sara Cleveland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, doesn't think they will pass.
"We don't foresee there being any changes here in Texas for quite some time," said Cleveland, of Austin.
Locally, sex education plays out in lessons on abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases that the Keller school district approved in May. They begin in seventh grade.
In Fort Worth, sixth-graders learn about abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases in health class. Arlington schools teach abstinence in a ninth-grade health class.
Many districts buy sex education material from outside companies, such as Just Say Yes, Worth the Wait, and Choose the Best. The programs teach anatomy, risk avoidance, how the effects of sex can affect accomplishments, and the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, according to representatives and company Web sites.
"We really want it to be a positive message: ‘Yes to your future; no to risky behaviors." said Terry Buckley, a registered nurse and program manager for Worth the Wait, based in Temple.
A 1995 state law requires that public school sex education "present abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior in relationship to all sexual activity" and "devote more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior."
The law allows teachers to discuss contraceptives in the context that they are not as effective as advertised because of the difference between laboratory testing and real-world mistakes. The law prohibits schools from distributing condoms.
Teachers are required to emphasize that abstinence is the only method that is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Parents can choose to remove their children from sex education class.
How schools accomplish the instruction is up to individual districts.
Does it work?
Virginia Department of Health research showed that abstinence programs there delayed the onset of sex in 50 percent of teens. Similar results have been reported in other states, including South Carolina and Georgia.
■ A Zogby poll last year found that parents preferred abstinence education by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the National Abstinence Education Association. The organization also says that "abstinence-plus" is a misnomer, because the curricula spends minimal time on abstinence and there is "a presumption and often an encouragement of sexual activity, as well as a narrow focus on promoting contraceptive use," according to the group's Web site.
■ The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 13 percent decline from 1991 to 2005 in the proportion of teens who became sexually active. Pregnancy rates also have dropped.
Those dates are important because abstinence-only education only began to take hold a little over a decade ago, said Dan Bailey, founder of Dallas-based Just Say Yes, which supplies abstinence programs for schools around the nation.
"If fewer teens are having sex and the pregnancy rate has gone down, maybe there is a correlation in more kids seeing the value in abstinence," Bailey said. "We should be encouraging that momentum."
Bailey said it is possible that a decline in teen pregnancy rates could be attributed to more teens using condoms.
"But we need to think about what message we want to encourage," he said. "It took 25 years to move our nation away from tobacco. This abstinence message will take time to change a culture, but I believe it's the right health and safety message."
Comprehensive sex education, abstinence-plus
An independent study by Mathematica Policy Research, commissioned by Congress, followed more than 2,000 students through their teen years from 1999 through 2006. Half the group was taught about abstinence, but those teens began having sex at the same age as their peers and had the same number of partners.
■ A report released by the federal Government Accountability Office in 2007 found that abstinence-based texts are often scientifically inaccurate and underestimate the effectiveness of condoms.
■ In Texas, a study paid for by the state health department found "little impact" of abstinence programs on teen behavior.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy promotes "abstinence-plus," which spokesman Bill Albert said encourages teens to abstain but offers knowledge of contraceptives in case they don't.
"We are squarely on the side of science and of public opinion," Albert said. "Thinking of it 'abstinence versus contraception' obscures the debate, because the overwhelming majority doesn't see the two as competing strategies. They see them as complementary strategies.
"Abstinence is better than contraception, but contraception is better than unplanned pregnancy."
Albert offered this analogy: "What do we say about drinking and driving? I think a lot of parents say, 'I don't want you to drink because it's against the law, it's an adult activity, you make poor decisions. But if you do drink, please don't drive."
Where do the presidential candidates stand?
Republican John McCain
Strongly opposes efforts to eliminate abstinence-only sex education classes for school-age children; believes that the correct policy for educating young children on the subject is to promote abstinence as the only safe and responsible alternative.
Democrat Barack Obama
Supports comprehensive sex education and opposes funding for abstinence-only programs, which he says have not been successful; supports comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education; says taxpayer-funded federal programs must be medically accurate and include information about contraception. Source: Candidates’ campaign Web sites
For more about sex education
prochoicetexas.org Mark Agee, 817-685-3813
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