Maybe it was Barack Obama’s stern warning that family should be off-limits that’s made everyone so polite about the sex ed thing–you know, the fact that a McCain/Palin Administration would in all likelihood be pushing abstinence-only education even while awaiting personal, in-the-flesh evidence of its failures. Of course, Bristol Palin isn’t the point. Unless the 17-year-old goes into labor just when her mother has to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, her pregnancy isn’t our problem. And she’s likely pretty well positioned to finish high school, get a good job and land on her feet despite her unfortunate timing. It’s the rest of America’s teens we should worry about.
At about eight times the rates in the Netherlands and Japan, the US teen pregnancy rate is one of the highest in the developed world. Still, the whole subject would likely have remained too delicate to touch if John McCain hadn’t done it first. That’s right, with his recent campaign ad accusing Obama of wanting kindergartners to learn “about sex before learning to read,” the Republican candidate has, for some mystifying reason, introduced sex education as a campaign issue. It’s not just the awkwardness of the growing Palin clan that makes this a really bad move for the Republicans. It’s the fact that abstinence education, on which we’ve already wasted more than $1.5 billion federal dollars to date, is the perfect example of a failed policy associated with the Bush White House that the ticket’s supposed to be running away from.
If John McCain really wants to talk about sex education, why not? Let’s have a “little talk” and set the record straight. First off: the stork doesn’t deliver babies. Mommy and daddy weren’t really having a “tickle fight” the other night. Oh, and, the people of our country have already decided that it’s ludicrous and harmful to systematically withhold information about birth control from teens. Half the states have chosen to stop receiving abstinence money through Title V of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, mostly because it forbids recipients to make any reference to contraception except to talk about its failures. And the biggest federally funded evaluation of abstinence-only education (which the Bush Administration posted on the Internet after years of delays on a Friday afternoon last year without as much as a press-release) found no evidence that it delays the age at which a teen begins having sex.
Across the great ideological divide on this subject, so-called “comprehensive sex education,” which includes information about both abstinence and birth control, enjoys the support of more than three-quarters of American voters, including a majority of Republicans, according to a 2007 poll conducted by the National Women’s Law Center. Obama’s supposed offense was voting for a bill in the Illinois State Senate that would have extended this education, or at least the groundwork for it, to students starting in kindergarten.
The McCain camp is clearly hoping this idea will make some Americans uneasy. But whatever images of condom-wielding kindergarten teachers they are trying to conjure have nothing to do with the reality of what was in the legislation, which mentions at least four times that all funded material should be “age-appropriate.” While there was no state-wide curriculum associated with the bill, typically comprehensive sex ed for elementary school students involves teaching kids they should say no and tell an adult if someone wants to touch them inappropriately and puberty education, including the names of body parts, according to Monica Rodriguez, vice president for education and training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. By sixth grade, many programs introduce the idea of abstinence.
Unified though they may be in their outrage over teaching kids words like “penis” and “vagina,” McCain and Palin have taken a while to get their own positions on sex ed together. On the top of the ticket, McCain, has been unequivocal in his support for abstinence-only programs, while Palin came out on both sides of the issue in 2006, saying first that she supported abstinence-until-marriage programs and later that teens should learn about contraception. Since entering the spotlight as potential VP and grandmother, she hasn’t spoken publicly about the issue, though there are signs she’s been offering abstinence advocates assurances of her support behind the scenes. Leslee Unruh, president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, for instance, at first expressed concern when told about Palin’s contradictory remarks about sex ed, according to the Los Angeles Times, but two days later confidently declared Palin’s support of teaching about birth control to be “old.” Clearly, Palin is seen as down with the cause.
And a cause it is. Abstinence adherents are a vocal minority who tend to rally around this form of education because of religious and ideological beliefs. In their view, withholding information about birth control is the best way to prepare teens for life, evidence to the contrary be damned (or perhaps condemned to an obscure government web page or encouraged to get married on the double). It’s just the kind of outdated, anti-science position that finally earned Bush the disapproval of most Americans–which is why you’d think McCain would be at least a little bit squirmy about starting this particular talk.