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You oughta know

"You oughta know" Continued...

Issue: "Roe vs. Wade 2000," Jan. 22, 2000

Dr. McIlhaney learned that lesson the hard way. He had assembled a little slide show about STDs, which he used in area high schools. An official from the Texas Department of Health watched one of these presentations and then criticized some of the data because they had come from what Dr. McIlhaney calls "throwaway journals," non-authoritative sources which he had used because they had lively quotes. He asked the official to take the slides back to the Department of Health and critique them, which he did. Then Dr. McIlhaney took the criticism and totally revised his presentation, a process that taught him the importance of "calling everybody to a higher standard of excellence and accuracy."

The Medical Institute has helped to move the abstinence movement toward the use of both fact-based arguments and materials with higher production values that communicate in secular surroundings. Since 1992 it has analyzed the data and published readable reports that have been used by parents and educators, as well as policy-formulating state and federal government leaders. Dr. McIlhaney says, "Sex is like driving. Driving can be good or bad.... Sex is very much the same way. It can be risky.... We want to be honest. What are the stats? What are the data?" And what the data say, according to Dr. McIlhaney, is that "condoms don't make sex safe enough for a single person."

In its Just Thought You Oughta Know video, the Medical Institute shrewdly plays the generation card. "Yeah, we're young, that doesn't mean we're stupid," one teen says. "Just because some of our parents had no self-control doesn't mean we don't. Maybe we're smarter. Maybe we're stronger. Maybe we're wiser than they were." The video stylistically places the abstinence movement among the thoroughly hip and at the same time plays to the idea of being willing to stand against the crowd. After emphasizing the statistic that 8,000 American kids are infected with an STD every day, one teen writes the number 7,999 on a clear marker board and says quietly, "Not today."

According to the Medical Institute, the number of teens who are virgins is increasing for the first time in 20 years; pregnancy rates, birth rates, and the number of abortions are declining. The federal government for once is playing a positive role: As part of welfare reform, Congress amended Title V of the Social Security Act to include funding designed to encourage the development of new abstinence programs. According to the National Center for Abstinence Education (NCAE), an independent group set up to monitor the spending, $437 million in state and federal dollars has become available to fund programs that advocate abstinence until marriage.

The Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, of course, has gone on the attack. SIECUS president Debra Haffner has complained that "the federal abstinence-only program is beginning to change the landscape of sexuality education."

Evidence of the change became stronger last month when two groups that support "safer-sex" programs, the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Kaiser Family Foundation, released studies showing that many school districts had turned away from their comprehensive sex-ed policies and were now emphasizing abstinence. A third now require abstinence-only programs, but more than 80 percent require that the programs emphasize abstinence. Only 14 percent still require comprehensive safer-sex programs.

Although the trend is encouraging, the larger question is whether students are keeping the pledges they make to remain abstinent until marriage, or if they already have had sex, to commit to "secondary virginity." Last month American Medical Association delegates voted to accept a report that said "little evidence is available to support the effectiveness of an abstinence-only approach in delaying the onset of intercourse among adolescents." The report went on to praise safer-sex programs, saying "safer-sex programs that are comprehensive in nature show promise with respect to changing student attitudes and behaviors."

The Medical Institute criticized the AMA report for saying that abstinence programs had not been subject to rigorous evaluation, and then attacking them for being ineffective. It will take several years for adequate evaluations of the new programs to be done, and Dr. McIlhaney is looking for such a dramatic decrease in teen pregnancy and STDs that even the most biased evaluator or jaded journalist won't be able to ignore the evidence.

"Wise up. These are not the good old days. Grow up. Sex is not a game," the new video proclaims. "Can't change the past. Can decide what I'm going to do today. And tomorrow. And the day after." That forward-looking message has put the Medical Institute in a position where it is setting the agenda rather than just responding. And it is leaving SIECUS's Debra Haffner muttering. Dr. McIlhaney smiles and says gently, "SIECUS is clinging to the old attitudes. She means well."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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