The federal government currently spends $0 per year on sex-education programs that include accurate information on abstinence and contraception.
Instead, it spends $176 million to promote a misleading message of abstinence only. If President Bush gets his way, that expenditure will increase to $204 million next year.
This is fiscally, politically and scientifically irresponsible.
Recent evidence from a new study ordered by Congress shows that students who participated in abstinence-education programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not participate. Nor did the abstinence programs delay the average age of a first sexual encounter - 14.9 years.
The findings by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., released earlier this month, may surprise some in Washington, but they support what researchers and public-health professionals have been saying for years: Abstinence-only programs do not work. That view is shared by many in the general public.
State policy makers have heard that message. Seven governors have turned away federal funds, saying there is no evidence that abstinence-only is working. The governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and Montana have dropped out of the federal program, or will do so soon. California never participated. And now Ohio may also join that list. Pennsylvania, which initially rejected the funds, has resumed accepting them.
Also, late last month legislation was introduced in Congress to fund comprehensive sex-education programs, which encourage abstinence but also offer instruction in contraception.
Politicians (except maybe those in the White House) are finally catching up with the sentiments of those who elected them. The governors and lawmakers are responding to public support for scientific evidence that overwhelmingly rejects the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs.
Last fall, my colleagues and I published the results of a survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. We asked nearly 1,100 adults about their views on three types of sex education in the schools: abstinence only, comprehensive sex education, and condom instruction.
Eight out of 10 Americans support programs that teach students what they need to know about sex - how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Almost 7 out of 10 favor instruction in condom use. This support for comprehensive sexual-health programs spanned religious and political spectra.
These average Americans joined many in the public-health community who have been recommending that sex-education programs provide scientifically accurate and potentially life-saving information about contraception and condom use.
The need for correct and complete information is indisputable. Almost two-thirds of 12th graders have had sex. Nine million cases of sexually transmitted infections among 15- to 24-year-olds are reported annually. Nearly 750,000 teens become pregnant each year.
Under the existing federal guidelines, teachers are forbidden from discussing contraception or sexually transmitted disease prevention, even in response to students' questions. Any mention of condoms stresses their failure rates.
Politics aside, the message teenagers should be hearing is this: Safe sex promotes health and saves lives. Almost all U.S. adults have sex before marriage. Marriage is happening later on in life and less often. Talking about sex and teaching youth about contraception does not encourage sexual activity. It encourages responsibility.