So-Con Lies About Abstinence-only Education

In response to a report put out by Rep. Henry Waxman that detailed a wide range of innacuracies and falsehoods in many of the abstinence-only curricula being used in states around the country, and being heavily funded by the Bush administration, the so-cons are furiously trying to defend such programs, leaving a trail of bad arguments in their wake. Naturally, the Worldnutdaily is leading the way with this column by our old pal Jerry Falwell. After describing what the report says, he offers the ubiquitous but absurd "he disagrees with me so he is biased" argument:

It is important that Americans understand that Rep. Waxman is a leading proponent of condom-distribution programs. He is not simply an unbiased observer in this situation.

Such a common argument, but it's completely devoid of any logical or factual content. I could as easily say that Jerry Falwell is a leading proponent of abstinence-only education, so he's not simply an unbiased observer in this. I can make that argument because it's equally true. The argument comes down to "he holds an opinion, therefore he's biased". Well, duh. But since both sides are biased in this same manner, does it help us determine which side is correct? Of course not. Hence, this argument that is entirely irrelevant to the question of who is right. But of course Falwell isn't trying to make a logical argument, he's engaging in the logical fallacy known as "poisoning the well". By pointing out that his opponent is a proponent of condom-distribution programs, he hopes to persuade his readers, most of whom are against condom-distribution programs, to simply tune him out and not listen to the arguments he's making. But of course, he hasn't actually challenged the accuracy of those arguments at all here. And when he tries to do so, he falls flat on his face:

The fact is there are many abstinence education organizations that are helping young people carry out their oaths to remain sexually abstinent until their marriages.

Is this a fact? Then by all means, let's have the evidence for it. This should be pretty easy to provide, shouldn't it? There are abstinence-only education programs going on in at least 10 states and various other local school districts around the country. If those programs actually do help young people remain abstinent, then there should be some fairly easy to obtain statistical evidence that in those states and localities where abstinence-only sex ed is used, the rate of sexual activity and the resultant negative effects in teens (pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, primarily) are lower than in those districts that don't use abstinence-only sex ed. So why doesn't Falwell mention any studies that show this data? Because there aren't any. In fact, all of the studies that have been done so far show no evidence at all that such programs are effective. So-cons like to refer to statistics that show that teen sexual activity has declined, but they do so dishonestly. Here's a textbook example, from the Heritage Foundation's response to the Waxman report:

Recent government data also underscore the effectiveness of the abstinence message on America’s teens. The Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows a decrease in the number of teens who are sexually active from 1991 (54.1 percent of teens) to 2003 (46.7 percent of teens).[10] This report and others show that teens are listening to the abstinence message.

What they don't tell you is that almost all of this decline took place in the early and mid 1990s, before Congress passed the initiative that funded abstinence-only education. Advocates for Youth did a review of 10 state studies on the effectiveness of such programs. What did they find? The data showed that the percentage of high school students who reported never having sex declined by 11% between 1991 and 1997, but held steady after 1998, when abstinence-only sex ed programs began. The number of students who reported having 4 or more sexual partners had declined 14% between 1991 and 1997; after 1998, it was unchanged. The data also showed that for those high schoolers who were sexually active, there was a 23% increase in condom use between 1991 and 1997, but only a 9% increase after 1998, consistent with the numerous state surveys that showed a negative attitude toward using condoms among those enrolled in abstinence-only programs. Faced with this evidence, what can they do? They can pull a bait and switch. Watch how it works in action from the Heritage Foundation:

Additionally, an April 2003 study published in Adolescent and Family Health found that increased abstinence was the major cause of declining birth and pregnancy rates among teen girls. This study found that increased abstinence accounted for 67 percent of the decline in pregnancy rate for teen girls ages 15 to 19. Similarly, 51 percent of the drop in the birth rate for single teen girls was attributed to abstinence. A similar study released in the August 2004 Journal of Adolescent Health attributes 53 percent of the decline in pregnancy rates for 15-17 year olds to decreased sexual activity, which was larger than the decline attributed to contraceptive use.

Did you catch that subtle change in subject? They were trying to argue that abstinence-only education leads to abstinence, but they only cited studies that show that abstinence leads to lower incidence of pregnancy and STDs. They're conflating the cause with the effect. There's no doubt that the drop in teen pregnancy and teen STDs during the 1990s was due largely to a decrease in sexual activity among teens (along with a sharp increase in the use of condoms, of course). But they skipped right over the internal link in their argument, the one that shows that abstinence-only education programs lead to more abstinence by teens. They skipped over it, of course, because the data is squarely against that link and shows that teen abstinence decreased in the 6 years prior to the implementation of abstinence-only sex ed and stayed the same after that implementation. Hence, the bait and switch.

Most absurd of all is the claim that the failure rate of condoms, which they wildly exaggerate of course, is somehow an argument for abstinence-only education. To wit:

Mrs. Klepacki noted that Rep. Waxman failed to note that the failure rate of condoms in the first 12 months of use by teen females is as high as 22.5 percent. There's a recipe for disaster if ever there was one.

This is a critical fact, especially when one considers the fact that the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that about 3 million teens contract an STD (sexually transmitted disease) each year. Some of these diseases have no cures. It is important that teens know that condoms are simply not a panacea in terms of protecting themselves from disease.

But no one claims that condoms are a "panacea". They only claim that if you are going to have sex, having a sex with a condom is a lot safer than having sex without one. Indeed, even at the absurd 22.5% failure rate, they would have to admit that using a condom is 77.5% safer than not using a condom. Think about the logic here. It's like arguing that since seat belts have a small failure rate, we should not tell people to use their seatbelts, we should only tell them to never get into a car. But in the real world people are going to get into cars, just like they're going to have sex, and when they do so, they'll be safer with protection than without it.

What should be taught is obvious to anyone with an IQ over room temperature. Sex ed classes should teach that the only way to remain 100% certain not to get pregnant or contract an STD is to abstain from sex, but that if you do have sex, you will be a lot safer using condoms, dental dams, and so forth than you will be going without them (just like the only way not to die in a motorcycle accident is not to get on a motorcycle, but that if you do get on a motorcycle, you should at least be sure to wear a helmet other protection). We should teach those things because they are true, every single one of them. But for the religious right, the truth must bow to their wishful thinking. They want to live in a world where no one has sex before marriage, and they think that by merely telling people to abstain, that world will come to exist. Sorry, reality doesn't bend to your desires, folks. It's time for you to wake up and smell the spermicidal foam.

More like this