Monday, March 22, 2004

Abstinence talks: Too little?


Such programs increasingly under fire

By Matt Leingang
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ERLANGER - She's tall, stunningly beautiful and a virgin - something that Lisa Marie Miree, a Finneytown native and former Miss Black USA, doesn't hide from teenagers when she talks to them about the virtues of abstinence.

[img]
Lisa Marie Miree (right), a former Miss Black USA, reacts with mock horror to a pickup line read by Tichenor Middle School seventh grader Shaun Engman (left). Eighth grader Jacob Jouett is at center.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
"I used to have a problem saying this in public," the 27-year-old Miree told a captivated audience of 330 students at Tichenor Middle School in Erlanger last week. "But I am out of the closet. Hey, virgin in the house!"

With that, the auditorium erupted with applause and Miree continued with her message: Abstinence is the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy.

"I thought she was great," said 14-year-old Ali Picklesimer, an eighth-grader at the school. "She's very proud of who she is. I think she'll influence a lot of people."

Program criticized

Despite the fact that President Bush wants to double federal funding of abstinence-only education to $270 million in the upcoming fiscal year, these are somewhat trying times for abstinence educators like Miree, who, since giving up her title last year, has toured the country to promote abstinence until marriage.

Two weeks ago, about 200 public health officials rallied against the Bush administration's plans at the close of the 2004 National STD Conference in Philadelphia, calling instead for teaching youngsters about the correct use of condoms because there is no reliable evidence that abstinence programs work.

Critics point to a study this year on Minnesota's abstinence-only sex education program, which was commissioned by the state health department. It concluded that the percentage of teens who said they were sexually active more than doubled after one year in the program from 5.8 percent to 12.4 percent, despite a reported increase in parent-child communication about sex.

As a result, some abstinence educators say that they are being put on the defensive. They say programs that emphasize abstinence are in their infancy and more time is needed before they can be evaluated fairly.

"The other side has been doing the condom things for years, but this is all new for abstinence," said Karen Andrea, grant director with New Hope Center Inc. in Edgewood, which teaches abstinence education at the invitation of schools throughout Northern Kentucky.

Actually, New Hope has been teaching abstinence in schools for 10 years. But last year, the nonprofit agency received a three-year, $1 million federal grant to add paid staff. Prior to that, New Hope operated on a $2,000 a year budget that paid for printed materials but required volunteer educators.

"We expect kids to say no to smoking, drugs, alcohol," Andrea said. "But sex is the only issue where they (opponents of abstinence-only education) say, 'Oh, they're going to do it anyway.'"

Birth control methods are discussed in New Hope's classes, but only in relation to their failure to prevent pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Too simplistic?

Opponents of abstinence-only education say the approach is too simplistic and can actually be hurtful to teens. Some studies have shown that once virginity "pledgers" break their promise, they are much less likely to use contraception - putting them at increased risk.

"If they are not planning to have sex, they are less likely to talk to their partner about the subject and less likely to prepare for it," said Sue Momeyer, president of Planned Parenthood, Cincinnati Region. "Our position has always been that sex education should be abstinence-based, but not abstinence only."

The nation's teen pregnancy rate has been declining for 10 years, something that experts attribute to a variety of factors: increased abstinence, increased use of contraception and a concern among young people about sexually transmitted diseases.

Yet teen pregnancy rates are still higher than most other developed countries, and roughly 4 million new sexually transmitted disease infections occur yearly among teenagers in the United States, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (see chart).

Abstinence-only advocates say a majority of parents believe abstinence is the best choice for their teens.

Backers of comprehensive sex education say most parents want their children taught about contraception and safe sex in addition.

But at least one abstinence educator in Greater Cincinnati said that both sides should broaden their views.

"Everyone is so caught up on sex, but this really is a failure of our society to teach children about reproductive health," said Ryan Luckie, director of prevention services at Services United for Mothers and Adolescents in Cincinnati. "I go into these schools and it's clear to me that kids have a poor knowledge of anatomy. Girls don't understand their menstrual cycles. Boys don't understand what's going on with them. That tells me our kids are confused."

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E-mail mleingang@enquirer.com

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