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Using the Human Rights Framework to Unravel Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

Nancy Goldstein,
Reproductive Freedom Project
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October 28, 2008

(Originally posted on Feministing.)

The special fall issue of the journal Sexuality Research & Social Policy, titled Human Rights, Cultural, and Scientific Aspects of Abstinence-Only Policies and Programs, represents the latest research-backed critique of costly, misleading, and ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. It appears at a time when concerns about these programs, which require the exclusive teaching of abstinence until marriage and prohibit teaching about condoms or other contraceptives other than to discuss failure rates, are running high. That anxiety is driven by reality: despite having received over $1.3 billion in federal funding over the past decade, no viable evidence suggests that they actually work.

Sexuality Research & Social Policy‘s special issue features articles written by some of the most prominent experts in the fields of adolescent sexuality, public health, human rights, and education. Topics run the gamut from state refusal of federal funding for abstinence-only, and a critical look at scientific errors about condoms present in abstinence-only programs, to yet another study that suggests that “abstinence programs have little evidence to warrant their widespread replication” while “strong evidence suggests that some comprehensive programs should be disseminated widely.”

What may be new for even seasoned consumers of information on abstinence-only programs is the volume’s emphasis on sexuality education as a component of human rights principles as they have been defined internationally. Against that backdrop, the notion that teens should have access to medically accurate, comprehensive, ideologically neutral information about sexuality, sexually-transmitted diseases, and contraception simply indicates compliance with agreed-upon health and human rights standards.

This matter-of-fact attitude towards granting teens access may come as a shock or a relief to readers in the United States, where sex has long been portrayed as dirty and dangerous — something to protect teens from — while the myth that teens who are deprived of sexual knowledge will remain chaste survives against all evidence to the contrary. But in this volume, and in the human rights context, teens are seen as having, as one of the many inalienable and universal rights that comes with being human, a right to obtain the kind of comprehensive information that will make it possible for them to make healthy and responsible decisions for themselves.

The issue’s overview article, which offers a critical perspective on the history and (in)effectiveness of abstinence-only policies and programs, notes that “offering information only on abstinence and withholding potentially lifesaving knowledge on risk reduction raises ethical and human rights concerns.” The authors go on to explain that access to accurate health information as a basic human right was described in the Programme of Action at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development — a meeting that focused on reproductive issues and the application of human rights to the arena of sexual and reproductive health — and that similar ethical notions appear in later international statements that address HIV/AIDS and children and adolescents, such as those issued by the 2003 Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Another piece that uses international human rights principles to examine the impact of abstinence-only programs on adolescents argues that abstinence-only programs in the United States defeat the object and purpose of a number of treaties, including the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. (The United States is one of only two member nation states in the United Nations to fail to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the other being Somalia.)

This special issue is dedicated to the memory of Guttmacher Institute senior public policy associate Cynthia Dailard, who was remembered in a tribute by Guttmacher’s Board of Directors and staff as being “driven by an abiding concern for human relationships, intimacy and commitment, and for sexual and reproductive health.” This volume’s rigorous scholarship and its commitment to justice pay fitting homage to a woman who, as the introduction notes, “tirelessly championed adolescent health and reproductive rights and fiercely opposed policies that she found to be scientifically misguided.”