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Denogean: Democrat’s sensible sex-ed bill will never see the light of day

Expecting all teenagers to remain abstinent “is not realistic at all.”

Don’t yell at me if you don’t like the message. I’m quoting Bristol Palin, who became the poster girl for teen parenthood last year, perhaps unfairly, when her mother’s vice presidential candidacy thrust the Palin family and Bristol’s pregnancy into the national limelight.

Earlier this week, Palin, 18, gave her first interview since the birth of baby boy Tripp Johnston on Dec. 27.

The unwed mother seemed sincere and unscripted when she told Fox News interviewer Greta Van Susteren that she wants to be an advocate for teen pregnancy prevention. But since she wouldn’t even discuss birth control, it’s not clear how effective she’ll be.

And that in a nutshell describes the whole problem with the abstinence-only sex education programs promoted by the federal government under former President George W. Bush and other social conservatives, including Bristol’s mom, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Teenagers are having sex but they aren’t being taught what they need to know to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch in Arizona, state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, is sponsoring a sex education bill that will never see the light of day.

Earlier this month, just as state Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, filed a sweeping anti-abortion bill that would hamper women’s access to reproductive health care, Sinema quietly filed House Bill 2544.

The bill would mandate that if sex education is taught in a public school, the program must be medically accurate and comprehensive. “Comprehensive” means teaching about abstinence, contraception, disease prevention and human development, as well as relationships, and decision-making.

Parents who object could have their child excused from the classroom.

“I introduced it knowing it probably wouldn’t get a hearing because I think it’s important for us, during this time of attacks on a woman’s ability to make these important life decisions, that we also talk about the prevention aspect of this,” Sinema said. “One of the best ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies is to ensure that people have the information they need to make informed decisions about their lives.”

Abstinence clearly prevents pregnancy and STDs. But the research just doesn’t back up abstinence-only education as a way of preventing teenage sex.

In late 2007, the nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released a report on the quality of sex education in the United States. Researchers reviewed the scientific evaluations of 115 sex ed programs of both the abstinence-only and comprehensive (addressing both abstinence and contraceptives use) variety.

Two-thirds of the comprehensive sex ed programs showed a positive effect on teen sexual behavior, either delaying the initiation of sex or increasing the use of contraceptives, or both. And debunking the myth that such programs encourage teens to become sexually active, there was no evidence that any of the programs hastened the initiation of sex or increased the frequency of it. Even making condoms available at school clinics didn’t make teenagers more likely to have sex.

The researchers found that the most effective programs send clear and consistent messages about sex and contraceptive use. They talk explicitly about sex and contraceptives, identify specific situations that might lead to unwanted or unprotected sex, and involve practicing saying no to sex or insisting on contraceptive use.

Regarding abstinence-only programs, the researchers found that very few of the programs that receive millions in federal dollars have been subject to a rigorous scientific evaluation of their effectiveness. Of those that have, there’s no strong evidence that the programs delay the initiation of sex, lead sexually active teens to return to abstinence or reduce a teen’s number of sexual partners.

Despite the lack of evidence for it, the federal government has cold-shouldered comprehensive sex ed and primarily funded abstinence-only sex ed since 1996. States that want the money get it by providing matching funds that also are restricted to abstinence-only programs. Arizona became the 16th state to reject the federal money in January 2008 after spending millions on abstinence-only eduction.

Sinema’s bill isn’t going anywhere in a Legislature dominated by social conservatives. In fact, Barto chairs the health and humans services committee that would have to hear it.

But this issue isn’t going away just because we refuse to address it honestly.

Arizona has the fifth highest teen-birth rate in the nation. Clearly, what we’re doing now isn’t working.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767.

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