For a few minutes, it seemed as though last week's sex education panel discussion was going to get awkward when somebody stood up in support of Heritage Community Services.
As though talking about kids and sex isn't awkward enough.
Tell Them, a grass-roots advocacy network that's part of the New Morning Foundation, sponsored the panel discussion, to focus on House Bill 3435, which would make improvements to South Carolina's 25-year-old comprehensive health education act — which isn't exactly comprehensive. (Video of the panel discussion is available at tellthemsc.org.)
Talk had somehow turned to abstinence, and morphed into the question of whether abstinence-only sex education is effective.
Heritage's home page contains, among many other things, this lengthy but revealing statement: “Early sexual activity is associated with outcomes that make young people more likely to depend on government. Abstinence education offers a rare alternative voice, and research has shown its effectiveness.” So, if you're a good small-government citizen, you don't want kids to have the facts about sex, because if they do, they might become welfare parents.
All four panelists at last week's presentation agreed that abstinence is part of a complete dialogue about sex. All are parents and said they wanted their children to have the complete medically accurate facts about sex. The fact that there is no standardized approach means that some schools get the Heritage message and some kids get something else, more or less.
Bill 3435 would change that, by ensuring consistent, medically accurate and age-appropriate instruction. The state would have to adopt a default standard that school districts would use if they didn't pick their own, and there would be more training required for the educators involved.
The problem with abstinence-only instruction is that 50 percent of South Carolina high school students have had sex, according to research from Tell Them.
“It would be unethical — unethical — for us not to teach them everything if they are sexually active,” said panelist Phyliss Thornthwaite, Berkeley County School District's health and physical education coordinator.
Based on testimony from educators, some teens are engaging in risky behavior in the mistaken belief that it's less harmful than traditional intercourse. They may not produce pregnancies but they're more likely to get cancer or STDs. Without information, including how to say no, how infections are transmitted, and how pregnancy happens, children and teens are more likely to make bad choices with life-changing consequences.
“Evidence-based programs reinforce and teach kids about decision-making skills and communication skills,” said panelist Doug Taylor, chief program officer with the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “You're giving them an opportunity, in a safe environment, to talk to one another about the decisions that they may make.”
Withholding information on the theory that it will cause young people to engage in risky behavior is both wrong-headed and shortsighted.
Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story needed clarification with regard to the abstinence-only program; it is Heritage Community Services.