Finally, Abstinence Triumphs!

The latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates continued dramatic declines in teen births, but the “news” regarding the CDC report is the general acknowledgement that abstinence efforts are contributing to the decline in teen births. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) explained: “The declines in teen birth rates reflect a number of behavioral changes, including decreased sexual activity, increases in the use of contraception at first sex and at most recent sex, and the adoption and increased use of hormonal contraception, injectables, and intrauterine devices.” [Notice that abortion is not mentioned at all; an acknowledgement that abortion rates are declining.]

Heretofore, the official line has been that abortion and birth control have been the driving forces in the decline in teen births. The facts, though, have been consistently pointed out (here, here, here, here and here) that both contraception and abortion have been constants throughout the time periods covered by CDC and that the new factor in the equation is more effective and widespread abstinence education. The facts about the success of the more sophisticated abstinence campaigns are further developed in two major reports (here and here).

Finally, the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth, acknowledges (as our analyses of the data have shown) that “the proportion of teen girls and women who are ‘sexually experienced’ has been falling for 20 years.”

My analysis of the CDC data in the following graphs documents dramatic downward trends: the birthrate for girls under 15 has declined by 79 percent since the peak in 1990, the unwed birthrate for girls 15 to 17 has declined by 62 percent from the peak in 1994, and the unwed birthrate for girls 18-19 has declined by 39 percent from the peak in 1994 despite a brief uptick in 2006 and 2007.

After increasing from 1998 to 2007 the unwed birthrate for young women in their 20s, has declined back to the level of 1999. Sadly with the average age of first marriage increasing and marriage rates declining, the unwed birthrate of women 30 and over have risen to the highest levels ever.

A brief historical overview is instructive; the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) -- founded in 1964 by Mary Calderone, medical director at Planned Parenthood -- was the pioneering program of comprehensive sex education (CSE) that reigned supreme for 25 years (1965-1990). Following those 25 years of increased rates of teen sexual activity and teen births, as the abstinence movement became a sophisticated, well organized, effective movement (1990-2014), teen childbearing began showing dramatic decreases.

It is also very instructive to note the development and growth in abstinence programming; here too, an overview is helpful. The three big names in the late 1970s were Phyllis Schafly, founder of Eagle Forum, Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and Beverly LaHaye, founder of Concerned Women for America (CWA). Mrs. Schafly was plain-spoken about the effects of sexuality education: increased sexual activity, promotion of teen pregnancy, advocacy of abortion, and lack of a moral base in comprehensive sex education programs. Falwell’s Moral Majority advocated parental consent for public school sex education programs and actively opposed programs that rejected Judeo-Christian values. Mrs. LaHaye also objected to programs not based on traditional moral values and respect for cultural norms. While they laid a solid groundwork, their voices, according to the Washington Post, were “submerged by quiet, grassroots alliances” of those who pushed sexuality education in the schools. While those alliances could hardly be called quiet or originating in the grass roots, those voices definitely overpowered the seriously underfunded and fledgling movement to defend traditional values. Polls at the time reflected the results brought about by the public relations campaigns of those who were overwhelmingly supportive of comprehensive sex education -- glossy efforts made possible by the cooperation between the media, public school officials and a vast liberal coalition of researchers, funders, and the corporate-political ties they enjoyed.

In the 1980s, comprehensive sex education programs were broadened to include “family life” and “human development” programs that wove in self-esteem, family economics, parental roles and other topics that increased their popularity with parents and school officials -- not to mention the fact that those “glossy” topics provided cover for the essential purpose of CSE. In addition, the AIDS pandemic and the skyrocketing STDs epidemic made CSE seem more necessary because, according to Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, if teens were not going to practice abstinence, they should protect themselves by using a condom. Dr. Koop’s endorsement of the condom became a rallying cry to those who believed that a teen’s hormones made abstinence unrealistic and therefore highly unlikely. Koop used his Surgeon General bully pulpit to advocate for expansion of CSE in the public schools and insisted that it begin in elementary school and include AIDS education and an emphasis on so-called “safe sex.”

When the proponents of traditional values began pushing back, the left kicked into high gear accusing the right of “associating sex with fear and death,” “promulgating misleading and inaccurate information,” and “breaching the separation of church and state” by insisting that Judeo-Christian values be the foundation for public school teaching on sexual matters. Overcoming those false accusations (spread widely through media and high-profile commentary) was a long, difficult process on the minimal budgets of the fledgling organizations of the right.

A few of the major early programs -- Sex Respect, Facing Reality, True Love Waits, Coalition for Teen Health, and Teen Aid -- received small amounts of financial support from the Reagan administration but were primarily based on curriculum developed on the proverbial shoestring budgets of small parachurch organizations. These programs reflected Judeo-Christian principles, including the belief that unmarried teens should avoid sexual activity and that discipline, self-control, and respect for others are important characteristics in developing strong character and personal integrity. Those are all values that were in the mainstream of American thought and conformed with the values most parents taught their children.

For the record, it is important to note that federal funding for comprehensive sex education -- from the outset until now -- has been at least four times the amount designated for abstinence programs. More than two-thirds of public schools (68%) teach comprehensive sex education. Yet even that small amount of support for abstinence education was controversial almost from the beginning. A court case brought in 1983 went all the way to the Supreme Court, was challenged in a long, contentious ideological battle, and was finally settled a decade later (1993) merely by requiring abstinence education to be medically accurate and contain no religious references.

The triumph of abstinence education should be encouraging to pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-family activists, scholars, and legislators. Progress has been a long time coming. The odds were not good; it was definitely a “David up against Goliath” battle. But, with minimal financial resources, truth prevailed and new generations of teens are seeing facts and figures as well as real-life examples that encourage them to make wise choices and to plan for their futures instead of dwelling only in the present. Armed with good information, they are not such easy prey for the cultural myths that tell them that they are victims of their hormones or that “everybody is doing it.” Instead, many more teens are learning self-control and are preparing for bright futures and strong relationships

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D. is an author, columnist and commentator, Her most recent books -- Children at Risk and Marriage Matters -- examine the ways that children are harmed by the decline in marriage, cultural disintegration and the breakdown of the family.

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