During the 2009 legislative session, the state Legislature recognized that youth need and deserve better sex education and passed a law mandating that state-funded sexual health programs be comprehensive, age-appropriate and medically accurate.
President Obama also recognized the same for young people around the country. In his draft 2010 budget, he ended the era of abstinence-only programming by proposing that all federally funded sex education be evidence-based and proven to positively impact teen behavior. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee have supported the president's initiative and the full U.S. Senate will take up the issue after their return from August recess.
Despite the reasoned judgment of the Hawai‘i Legislature, the president and Congress, Gov. Lingle and four other Republican governors recently asked U.S. Senate members to continue funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programming. Gov. Lingle's choice to join this handful of governors in this request is inexplicable, given that the overwhelming majority of Republican governors chose not to sign on and, further, that the signers constitute a tiny minority of Republican governors from southern states with nothing in common with Hawai‘i. Moreover, Gov. Lingle's illogical focus on abstinence-only further fuels Hawai‘i's unwelcome distinction of having one of the highest teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates in the country.
While abstinence is an important lesson to teach our youth, its use at the exclusion of real-world, medically accurate education is irresponsible and dangerous and constitutes government-imposed morality at its most insidious.
In 1996, Congress created a federal funding program for sex education that promoted abstaining from sex until marriage. In 2005, former President George W. Bush began dramatically increasing spending and tightening abstinence-only program requirements under Title V and Title XI of the Social Security Act. He required, among other things, that all federally funded programs teach abstinence until marriage as the only means of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Indeed, grantee recipients of this funding were prohibited from even mentioning the efficacy of condoms and other forms of contraception as tools to protect against unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS. A government study found that many of these abstinence-only programs were spreading misconstrued data and even fabricating information they were teaching to impressionable youth. Teens were either left with faulty information or no information at all about how to protect themselves if and when they become sexually active.
The results have been devastating for youth — Hawai‘i's teens rank dead last at protecting themselves. Hawai‘i has the lowest rate in the country of condom use among sexually active teens, which has led to Hawai‘i also ranking among the states with the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Hawai‘i's high chlamydia rates are especially alarming; chlamydia typically has no symptoms and can have lifelong consequences, including infertility, if left untreated.
Further, a federal government-sponsored study found that students who participate in abstinence-only programs have sex at the same rate and at the same age as those who do not. Other studies have shown that teens participating in 'virginity pledge' programs not only have the same rates of sexual activity as their peers, but they are less likely to use protection, seek medical care or get tested for sexually transmitted infections and HIV.
Simply put, abstinence-only programming does not work.
There is ample evidence, however, that programs that include information about both waiting to have sex and effective contraceptive use can help delay sex and reduce sexual risk taking among teens. Many of these programs have been shown to significantly delay the initiation of sex, reduce the frequency of sex and number of sexual partners and increase condom or contraceptive use among sexually active teens.
We applaud the Hawai‘i Legislature, President Obama and the U.S. Congress for their foresight in recognizing the value of these programs and ensuring that our nation continues down the path toward a new era of protecting our youth's well-being and preparing them to make safe, responsible and informed decisions regarding their sexual reproductive health.
Meanwhile, Gov. Lingle continues to senselessly push abstinence-only funding in the face of resounding opposition to such programming and despite its devastating effects on our young people. Our youth deserve better.
Katie Reardon is vice president of government and public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Hawai‘i. Laurie A. Temple is staff attorney for American Civil Liberties Union. Judith Clark, executive director of Hawai‘i Youth Services Network; Professor Hazel Beh of the William S. Richardson School of Law; Professor Milton Diamond and Nancy S. Partika of the John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawai‘i- Mānoa; Allicyn Hikida Tasaka, co-chair of the Hawai‘i State Democratic Women's Caucus; Jackie Berry, executive director of Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawai‘i; Dr. Valli Kalei Kanuha, president of the National Association of Social Workers, Hawai‘i chapter; Debbie Shimizu, executive director of National Association of Social Workers, Hawai‘i chapter; and Kat Brady of Community Alliance on Prisons contributed to this article.