Pa. abstinence-only education a risk to young adults

Pennsylvania recently applied for $1.7 million from the government for abstinence-only education. The money will only further an already-dangerous ideology.

I am dismayed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s application for $1.7 million in federal funds for abstinence-only education.

Abstinence-only programs teach children that sex is dangerous and immoral unless or until there is a marriage contract. According to the federal government’s guidelines, abstinence-only education “teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

Teachers of abstinence-until-marriage programs may not discuss contraception except to say it fails.
This is a problem because every accepted study, including the department’s own, shows that abstinence-only education is ineffective.

Holli Senior, spokesperson for the Department of Health, acknowledged the discrepancy, but said, “Abstinence is an important piece to a full comprehensive education around development of sexuality.”
Sure, but the key word is “piece.” There is more to comprehensive education than abstinence.

Private organizations can apply to the federal government directly, so I can’t figure out why the state is involved, especially since Sen. Arlen Specter has already earmarked millions for similar programs.
Senior does not know why these funds are being sought now, but hopes that new programs will be “different and more successful.”

These programs are purposefully limiting the education of young people about the crucial issues of reproductive and sexual health. In what scenario is it better for people to be less informed? It certainly isn’t better when something as complicated as sexual practices is involved.

The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, and new reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one in four teen girls has a sexually transmitted infection, most often the potentially cancer-causing virus, HPV.

One of the most effective ways we have of reducing teen pregnancy and slowing STI transmission and contraction is to teach the proper use of condoms, which are highly effective in preventing either outcome.

Yes, they do fail. So do brakes, airport security, airbags, smoke alarms, 911 dispatches and pretty much any other system put in place to protect people, but no one is suggesting we disregard these prophylactic measures.

In addition, abstinence education instills fear and over-emphasizes the negative consequences of sex. You don’t have to be Freud to deduce that equating sex with death and disease unless you’re married, is a confusing and potentially harmful pedagogy.

Not to mention that teens who are gay or lesbian, or whose personal experiences do not reflect abstinence-until-marriage, are out of luck.

Further, teens whose sex education is abstinence-only are facing young adulthood ill-prepared and ignorant, which could result in greater risk for pregnancy and infection.

Shelly Yanoff, director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, thinks Gov. Ed Rendell should withdraw the application for abstinence-only funding because “it hamstrings kids from what they need to know and won’t protect their health.”

She’d also like to see Rendell restore the $200,000 the state just cut from proven sex education programs because what you don’t know can hurt you.

I mean, what’s next, banning books and teaching creationism?

Paula Sen can be reached at

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