It’s Magic: How Can McCain and Palin Still Support Ab-Only?

Emily Douglas

Given the United States' teen pregnancy rate, the fact that a teenage daughter of a candidate for national office is pregnant shouldn't come as a surprise. What should stop us in our tracks is the fact that both candidates on the Republican ticket still back abstinence-only programs.

Pregnant seventeen-year-old? McCain aid Mark
Salter responds
, "This is an American family."

As a matter of fact, it is. 
Teenage pregnancy doesn’t just happen to Juno, Jamie Lynn, and the
daughter of the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee.  Nationwide, one
in ten births
comes to a teenage mother. 
Three in ten girls in the United States become pregnant by
age 20.  Recently, teen
parenting has become more common
: between 2005 and 2006, the teen birth
rate increased by three percent.

Given the United
States’ teen pregnancy rate, the fact that a
teenage daughter of a candidate for national office is pregnant shouldn’t come as
a surprise.  What should stop us in our
tracks is the fact that both candidates on the Republican ticket still back
abstinence-only programs, repeatedly proven ineffective at preventing
pregnancy, decreasing risk for STI transmission and at delaying sexual initiation.  Responding to a questionnaire from the Eagle
Forum while running for governor of Alaska,
Palin wrote
that "the explicit
sex-ed programs will not find my support." 
McCain, for his part, says he
"thinks he supports the President’s policy." 
Given that President Bush has enthusiastically shelled out upwards of $1
billion to abstinence-only programs, it’s a fair bet that McCain would keep
these ineffective measures on the gravy train, too.

Back in April 2007,
Mathematica Policy Research released a congressionally-mandated study of four federally-funded
abstinence-only programs, finding that abstinence-only programs are not only
ineffective but harmful to teens. At the time, William Smith, vice
president for public policy for SIECUS, stated, "This report should serve as
the final verdict on the failure of the abstinence-only industry in this
country."  But on conference call
organized by abstinence-only advocates in the wake of the report’s release, it
became clear that abstinence-only advocates weren’t going to rely on empirical
evidence as justification for their position. 
"The…spin I think is very important is not [program] effectiveness, but
rather the values that are being taught," said one advocate. Whether or not
these programs work is a "bogus issue," he continued.

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Since the release of the Mathematica report, opposition to
abstinence-only has only mounted.  When
the Democratic-controlled Congress considered extending abstinence-only
funding, ten
scientists wrote
to Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid to express
their opposition.  Douglas Kirby’s 2007
"Emerging Answers" report couldn’t find any strong evidence of the impact of
abstinence-only programs on sexual behavior. 
By April 2008, Congress was holding its first oversight hearings on
abstinence-only funding, and only
one public health researcher
spoke in favor of abstinence-only, opposing to
the consensus reached by major American public health and medical
organizations.  And his evidence was one
study showing that abstinence-only programs can have a modest effect on seventh
graders delaying sex.  The 2008
Republican Party platform shudders at the "22% of all federal programs that are
ineffective or incapable of demonstrating results."  And yet their dogmatic support of
abstinence-only funding survives.

we don’t only know that abstinence-only doesn’t
work.  Luckily for the American people,
there’s a proven alternative – comprehensive sexuality education.  Emerging Answers found that "Two-thirds
of the 48 comprehensive programs that supported both abstinence and the use of
condoms and contraceptives for sexually active teens had positive behavioral
effects."  Contrary to claims made by
abstinence-only advocates, comprehensive sex ed doesn’t promote promiscuity.

Given this arsenal
of evidence, is there any other conclusion to be made than that McCain, Palin,
and the rest of the religious right (and the politicians who pander to them)
don’t actually care that much about teens getting pregnant?  "Gov. Palin and Sen. McCain are supporting abstinence-only
because of ideology, not because it’s doing a single thing for teenagers in America," says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. 

President of the National Abstinence
Clearinghouse, Leslee
, spun Bristol Palin’s pregnancy thusly: "Abstinence
works. It works every single time…Blaming sex education for the failures of
people who make a mistake is not fair." 
The disconnect is radical: to Unruh, abstinence-only programs are a kind
of values indoctrination, not an educational program to be evaluated by their effect on pupils’
subsequent behavior.  She tries again:
"If she was [given information about abstinence], it should have worked.
But people make mistakes." Okay. So
once teens are exposed to the force of abstinence-only logic, it will
"work" its magic.  If it doesn’t, it’s a sign
of moral turpitude on the part of the teens involved, not on the part of the
adults who would restrict sexual health information from them.

Advocates of comprehensive sexuality education counter that
we all know mistakes happen, and that, in fact, there’s a way to teach for them
– kind of like when your SCUBA gear fails, oxygen is still delivered.  Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is "a reminder
of how, even in strong families where youth are taught to refrain from sex
until marriage, teens can make poor decisions," says Stephen Conley, executive
director of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and
Therapists. "Teens need the reinforcement of school programs that give them the
information and skills they need to take responsibility for their sexual
health."  There are skills that can
mitigate the effects of poor sexual decision-making – knowing about emergency
contraception – and there are skills that can prevent poor sexual decision-making
– keeping condoms accessible, strong sexual communication skills, knowledge
about STI status.  But McCain and Palin
oppose programs that would teach any of these. The McCain-Palin ticket, says Richards, "is completely out-of-touch — the vast majority of people in America believe
young people should get the information they need."

What ab-only
proponents and supportive politicians seem to oppose is not unintended pregnancy
but teens, specifically, teen girls, having access to information and education
about their sexuality and sexual health. 
For advocates of comprehensive sexuality education, dismantling
disempowering stereotypes of female sexual behavior and teaching communication and negotiation skills is as significant a goal as
dispensing information about how to prevent pregnancy and the spread of
sexually transmitted infections.  But
female passivity and male aggression are the very stereotypes abstinence-only
programs rely on to set behavioral standards. 
When the women’s legal rights organization Legal Momentum studied
abstinence-only curricula, it found that a "hidden curriculum on gender" that
set up women as sexual gatekeepers responsible for keeping men’s desire in

Teen child-bearing
in the US costs taxpayers $9.1 billion
. This year’s  Democratic platform calls
for support – including income support and pre- and post-natal health care – for
teens and adult women wanting to carry unplanned pregnancies to term, in
addition to backing comprehensive sexuality education and contraceptive access.  Too bad the Republican platform doesn’t call
for the education that could help teens prevent pregnancy.  Too bad the Republican platform calls for a
constitutional amendment banning the right to terminate the pregnancies teens
don’t know how to prevent. And too bad the Republican platform makes no mention
of the concrete support systems that could actually benefits the new teen moms
who aren’t quite lucky enough to be governor’s daughters.

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