Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association

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TT Humanist Statement on Abstinence Only

19 July 2005 • 596 words

In an attempt to reassure the country that Abstinence Only education is not as dangerous as studies suggest, the Joint Abstinence Support Committee has managed to alarm us further. The Committee took a crack at the impossible task of reconciling reality with their impractical and judgmental programme in a release last week. Contradictions abound in their muddled statement. The Abstinence Only programme caters only to youths who "have chosen to abstain ... irrespective of whether they have ever had sex or not". Those who either choose to have sex, or don't have a choice in the matter, are not within its constituency.

The Committee acknowledges this inadequacy, stressing that its programme does not replace traditional channels within school for teaching about sexuality. But what "traditional channels" are they referring to? Our nation's children have never had the benefit of long-term, widespread and comprehensive sex education in schools. At best, a few have benefited from the sporadic interventions of NGOs invited for an afternoon talk. Is it any wonder, given the ignorance deliberately imposed on our young people by the State, that the country's HIV-infection rates are so high? Yet the Abstinence Committee would have us believe that a revised Health and Family Life Education programme supported by a Moral Values Education curriculum would patch this gaping pothole. The Committee conveniently fails to add that its Chairman, Dr. Emmanuel Sennah, is also the Project Officer of this curriculum.

The fact is, any approach to sexuality that imposes an inflexible notion of morality will inevitably undermine the delivery of factual and comprehensive sex education. This is exactly what the Abstinence Only programme does. The Committee describes the claim that its programme reinforces ignorance about the proper use of contraceptives as a "contrived argument". Incredibly, they assert this while admitting that one of its 12 key lessons is "the risks of contraceptive use". The Abstinence Committee in its statement also puts "comprehensive sex education" and "abortion rights" in the same sentence - a rather transparent attempt to imply that those who support sex education also favour abortion as a method of birth control. But "comprehensive sex education" involves the right to information, whereas "abortion rights" is an ethical debate about a woman's right to choose.

While comprehensive sex education accommodates messages on abstinence, fidelity and condom use all at once, Abstinence Only education actively and explicitly undermines the safe sex message. An eight-year-long study on the effect of virginity pledges published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that pledgers' STD infection rate did not differ from non-pledgers. Not only do most pledgers start having sex before they make it to marriage, but many are not equipped with critical information on consistent and correct condom use. By contrast, countries such the Netherlands, Sweden, and France, which have comprehensive sex education programmes, have lower teenage pregnancy and STD rates than countries which do not have such programmes.

A complete and sustained sex education programme that combines information on abstinence, being faithful, and contraceptive use, should be mandatory in all schools. These programmes should be non-judgmental and non-directive, fuelled by fact and by respect for the individual's right to think independently. The availability of such programmes should not depend on the whims of principals, as the Abstinence Committee suggests. In fact, it is the dissemination of this Abstinence Only curriculum, with its small catchments of students and its moral impositions, which should be left to individual discretion. Our children are being led astray by a Committee that's sensitive to "values" and "faith", while remaining indifferent to reality.

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