Almost nine out of 10 Republican parents support abstinence education. And three-quarters of Democrats feel the same, according to a national survey released by the National Abstinence Education Foundation last year. Despite this, Illinois lawmakers just passed a bill requiring “comprehensive sex education” in the state’s public schools. Starting at about age 11, students taught about abstinence, must have birth control and contraception presented as alternative choices.
When the new law takes effect, students will no longer be taught that abstinence is the expected norm, only that it is the only 100 percent certain way to avoid getting pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The courses will now also place “substantial emphasis” on contraception for the prevention of pregnancy and STDs. And lawmakers struck one important sentence from the curriculum: “Pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage.”
Planned Parenthood of Illinois and The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois celebrated their involvement and said they played a major role in moving the legislation forward. Under the old law, schools had the option to teach “safe sex” as well as abstinence. Now, their only choice is to teach a curriculum that includes contraceptives or skip sex ed altogether. Although the new law’s proponents said the changes were necessary to lower teen births, Illinois does not have a high teen pregnancy rate: Just 4 percent of American girls 17 and younger who get pregnant live in Illinois.
Scott Phelps, executive director of Abstinence & Marriage Education Partnership, said the “equal” status the new curriculum confers on abstinence and contraception isn’t accurate. While abstinence does prevent pregnancy and STDs, that claim is scientifically inaccurate for contraception, which only makes contracting a disease or getting pregnant less likely. The teaching also misses a key distinction between abstinence and “safe sex,” Phelps said: “In one case, the kids are having sex. In another case, the kids are not having sex.”
Proponents of the change say high school students will have sex either way, and if they don’t know about contraceptives, they will get pregnant more often. But according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report, more than 66 percent of high school students say they aren’t sexually active. Another study found 67 percent of those who have had sex wish they had waited. According to Phelps, 98 percent of high schoolers who reported having sex said they used protection of some kind.
“The idea that they all have sex is false,” he said. “The idea that they won’t know about contraception is false.”
But most importantly, “comprehensive sex education” divorces the connection between sex and marriage. Studies have shown abstinence before marriage leads to stronger and more satisfying family relationships. Phelps said it is vital to make that connection for high school students. Abstinence education is about protecting and strengthening the future of marriage, and teaching students how to prepare for a healthy marriage. He said it also gives students the reason to wait: “Sex involves much more than simply the physical consequences of pregnancy. Reserving all sexual activity until a marriage relationship is the safest, healthiest decision you can make.”
And that, unlike contraceptives or birth control, really is news to teens, said Phelps, who once had a high school student tell him: “I think saving sex for marriage is a great idea. I never thought of that before. Where did you come up with this great plan?”