"What Made It Nice Was It Was Free"

That's Gina Castro being quoted in an article that appeared in this past Monday's San Antonio Express-News, in Texas. She's the administrator who oversees the school health advisory council for Harlandale. Of the 16 districts in Bexar County, where the teen birth rate is nearly double the national average, Harlandale is one of the poorest, with a majority of students coming from low-income homes.

When Ms. Castro talks about why she decided to recommend "Worth the Wait," a federally funded abstinence-only curriculum that's free to all school districts, it's a simple dollars and cents explanation. "We had not really allotted any funds to buy a curriculum," Ms. Castro said, "so it came at the exact perfect time."

On the face of it, Ms. Castro's decision makes sense - except for two not-so-minor details. First off, it's increasingly hard to ignore the evidence that abstinence-only curricula may not actually be all that nice since they don't do a whole heck of a lot to help teens. As the ACLU's Marshall Bright noted in a post late last month, a 2007 study by Mathematica found that students who participated in abstinence-only programs are just as likely to have sex as their peers who did not participate. (By the way, as the San Antonio Express-News article notes, one of the requirements for federally funded abstinence programs is that they teach contraceptives in terms of their failure rates. So what are the chances that a Harlandale school student who does decide to have sex is going to bother with using any?)

Or consider the findings of a 2005 study of adolescents who took virginity pledges - a common feature of abstinence-only programs. It found no difference between pledgers and nonpledgers regarding the rate of sexually transmitted diseases, and only a slight difference in terms of the age of sexual debut. Pledgers waited a bit longer, but most still had sex before marriage, and fewer pledgers than nonpledgers used a condom their first time.

By contrast, researchers from the University of Washington concluded that adolescents who receive comprehensive sex education are significantly less likely to become pregnant than adolescents who receive abstinence-only-until-marriage or no formal sex education.

More importantly, even administrators for low-income school districts, like Harlandale, do have a choice when it comes to school sex education curriculum. There's the Family Life and Sexual Health curriculum (F.L.A.S.H.), a free, downloadable comprehensive pregnancy, HIV and STD prevention curriculum available for grades 4 through college. Also available for free to school districts in Bexar County is the Big Decision, a curriculum developed locally by the medical advisor of Project WORTH, San Antonio's teen pregnancy prevention program. While stressing abstinence, it also includes medically accurate information about various forms of contraception and their effectiveness rates.

And that's really nice, especially for the students of Harlandale school district. Because youth deserve access to the factual information they need in order to make good decisions about their bodies and their lives.

Won't you please reconsider, Ms. Castro?

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