Is Henry Waxman 'Abstinence-Phobic'?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007 at 02:06 PM

The debate over sex education in the schools is, like most issues in 21st century America, more like a battle than a debate. The April, 2007 publication of a congressionally-funded study of abstinence programs has set off another flurry of skirmishes, leading one newspaper editorial writer to call Henry Waxman, the Democratic congressman from California who is the Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, "abstinence-phobic."

Calling someone abstinence-phobic is pretty strange. Why in the world would anyone have an abnormal, irrational fear of abstinence by teens? The charge makes as much sense to me as those anti-abortionists who insist that organizations like Planned Parenthood actively favor abortion, can't get enough of it to the point that virtually insist that pregnant minors have abortions over the objections of the minor. It just makes no sense.

So what produced this mess?

In April, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. issued its report titled "Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs: Final Report." The report is the final product of Congress's authorization, as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, of a scientific evaluation of the Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Program.

The report's conclusions after having studied four specific Abstinence Programs in four different schools and localities, is simply that:

Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age. Contrary to concerns raised by some critics of the Title V, Section 510 abstinence funding, however, program group youth were no more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex than control group youth.
In other words, the study found that sexual behavior was simply unaffected by abstinence programs. The kids in the programs had no better or worse track record than kids not in the programs when it came to having sex, the age when they began having sex, or how many sexual partners they had.

The fact that there was such a study should be good news. But how do you get from a scientific study, conducted under congressional authorization of a Republican congress, to accusing Henry Waxman of being abstinence-phobic?

Easy. The report has been widely publicized and many people, including Waxman, have portrayed the report as pretty good evidence that funding of abstinence programs, as opposed to "comprehensive" sex education programs that teach abstinence as well as contraception, is a waste of public money. And the funding for these programs is about due for renewal.

So abstinence advocates have been in full attack mode. The editorial linked above is in response to a letter and a prior opinion column in that newspaper on the subject of abstinence-focused programs. In the editorial writer's eyes, the Mathematica report:

was taken from only four organizations of 700 representing less than 1 percent of the abstinence organizations in America. The one year abstinence training had no follow up in the subsequent four years.
As near as I can tell, that last statement is simply untrue. The Mathematica report covers four different programs, and describes them in detail. Only one of the four was for a single year. The others lasted two, three, and "up to" 4 years.

The editorial writer continues that:

One of the greatest influence factors in influencing teens' behaviors is peers. The control group in this study was peers in the same school. This is called cross contamination. It only took four years to have the untrained teens pull the abstinence-trained teens down to their level.
I'm not a scientist, and I don't design studies, but I would think that there would be worse methodological problems if you had a program group from one school and community and compared them to a control group from a different school and community.

As for Waxman, the editorialist dismisses his 2005 report on the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs, noting:

...the Waxman Report from 2005...was widely heralded by the media; however, it was a totally inappropriate use of the taxpayers' money as refuted by John Souder's subsequent report. The abstinence report by Waxman was described as delivering misinformation, exaggeration, half-truths, and in many cases just plain false information. The media never set the record straight once the truth was made known.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., could be described as abstinence-phobic! Furthermore, this was just one of several cases of "junk science" presented to the public about abstinence.

The attack on the methodology of the Mathematica study is pretty common. The Culture and Media Institute, for example, has a piece headlined "Liberal Media Use Flawed Study to Attack Abstinence-Only Education," which complains that (emphasis added):
First the research design was flawed and second, the four programs reviewed are not representative of the 700 programs in use around the country...none of the programs studied by Mathematica continued on through high school, when students have to deal with maturing hormones, increasing peer pressure to have sex, and an ever-intensifying deluge of pro-sex media messages delivered through television and movies.
None continued on "through high school" if that means all the way through the senior year. But the Mathematica report itself notes that all four of the studied programs include eighth graders, and three of the four continued for at least two years, and up to four years. Students who attended the abstinence program for four years were in the program through 11th grade. Those who attended for three years were in the program through 10th grade.

Culture and Media also note the "enormous coverage" given to "Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Cal.) efforts to discredit and defund abstinence programs."

It's important to keep in mind the semantics at work here. What Mathematica and the other sources cited in this post mean by "abstinence programs" is, essentially, abstinence only programs. If the anti-teen pregnancy program discusses contraception as well as abstinence, it is a "comprehensive" program, not an abstinence program. The debate is whether teens should be told only that abstinence is best, normal, etc., or whether they should be told that and taught about contraception and sexuality.

I do have one question for the opponents of the Mathematica report: why do you think the Republican congress would have commissioned a study biased against abstinence programs?

But doctrine, theology, and, now, money are at stake. So expect more of the same described above, rather than a rational answer or productive dialogue.


I've always been a bit puzzled by the obsession with sex in this country. What is it that makes some Americans obtuse to the truth that education is almost always better than ignorance?

The statistics on teen pregnancy and STDs in more progressive countries compared to ours makes us look like barbarians. I know we don't want to be copying other countries, even when they're doing it right and we're not, but damn, couldn't we at least be sane about this?

ignorance < education.


"couldn't we at least be sane about this"

Nope. Not if that means having to overcome an emotional feeling about what's good and what's bad/evil, inculcated over our entire lifetimes. Most of the abstinence only programs are, not surprisingly, founded, run and advocated by people from the froup now known as the "religious right."

Oddly, both the editorialist and the Culture and Media Institute source in the post make passionate statements about the hazards of teen pregnancy in arguing against the Mathematics report, simply assuming the very point of the debate: what is the best approach to reducing the incidence of teen pregnancy?

There could be no doubt in any realm of logical thought that the best way to avoid getting pregnant is to not have sex. I mean, that's obviously the best way to go if you don't want to get pregnant, short circuit the whole process.

What they're not dealing with, however, is the simple fact that people fuck, and they fuck a lot. And when they fuck, if they know better how to fuck, they won't fuck up the fucking so much.