Doctors urged to advise patients about risks of abstinence-centric sex education

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American Academy of Pediatricians’ new report is the clearest denouncement of the failures of not talking about STIs and pregnancy prevention

Across the US only 50% of high school students receive sex education that meets the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Across the US only 50% of high school students receive sex education that meets the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The country’s largest organization of pediatricians entered fraught political territory on Monday, with a call for doctors to use their time with patients to combat the potential health consequences of abstinence-centric sex education.

In a new report, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) issued its clearest denunciation yet of sex education programs that fail to offer comprehensive information on topics such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy prevention.

“This is the mothership telling pediatricians that talking about sex is part of your charge to keep children and adolescents safe,” said Dr Cora Breuner, a professor and pediatrician at Seattle Children’s research hospital and the report’s lead author.

“These guidelines give pediatricians in communities where people might say, ‘We don’t want you talking to our kids about this stuff,’ permission to say, ‘No, I can talk about this, I should talk about this, I need to talk about this.’”

The report is broadly a call for pediatricians to help fill in the gaps left by the country’s patchwork sex education programs. It urges pediatricians to teach not only contraception and the benefits of delaying sexual activity, but to cover topics such as sexual consent, sexual orientation and gender identity with school-aged children who may not receive any information in the classroom and involve their parents.

But the authors single out abstinence-heavy education, which sometimes excludes information about contraceptives, as a key concern for doctors looking to help adolescent patients avoid sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. As a result, it is likely to fuel an already contentious debate.

Groups that have advocated for sex education to emphasize abstinence instantly found fault with the new guidelines.

“A health organization like the AAP should not be affirming a behavior that can compromise the health of youth,” said Valerie Huber, the president of Ascend, a group that promotes abstinence-centric sex education and advocates for federal funding. The group was formerly known as the formerly the National Abstinence Education Association.

“They recommend ‘responsible sex’ for young adolescents. Exactly what is responsible sexual activity for adolescents? … The science is clear that teens are healthier when they avoid all sexual activity.”

Moreover, Huber said, programs that “normalize teen sex” are unpopular with many parents.

“Most communities do not support the type of sex education they recommend,” she said.

Still, others embraced the report as bringing the AAP’s recommendations more in line with the reality.

“This is a fantastic move,” said Chitra Panjabi, the president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a research group that supports comprehensive sex education. “It’s really important that our medical providers are standing up and saying, hey, the youth in our communities are coming to us because they’re not getting the information they need. And so we need to step in.”

The US does not enforce national standards for sex education and schools in many states are not required to teach it. Across the country, SIECUS estimates, only 50% of high school students receive sex education that meets the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The other half of students receive anything from an incomplete sex education, to education that emphasizes abstinence, to abstinence-only education, with a focus on delaying sex until heterosexual marriage.

In February, Barack Obama proposed a budget for 2017 that eliminated the $10m the department of health and human services spends on abstinence-only programs every year. But funding continues to flow to those programs from other sources. Title V, an abstinence-only program, allocates $75m a year to abstinence-only programs, money that states match by 75%.

In the last quarter-century, programs emphasizing abstinence as the optimal way to avoid pregnancy and STIs have received more than $2bn in funding from the federal government. Comprehensive sex education, by contrast, has no dedicated federal funding stream.

“It’s a political climate where people don’t want to talk about these issues,” said Breuner. “But it makes our job so much harder when we cannot coordinate our efforts with the schools. It takes time away from the other safety issues we need to be discussing. Don’t smoke weed. Don’t text and drive.”

Recently, two major surveys of existing research on sex education concluded that there was no evidence or inconclusive evidence to show that abstinence-centric programs succeeded in delaying sexual activity. One of the surveys found that comprehensive sex education was actually more effective than abstinence education at delaying sexual activity in teens. (Ascend points to select studies which show the opposite.)

A long-term study found that teens receiving abstinence-only programs were less likely to use contraceptives or be screened for STIs, although rates of infections were not elevated.

The studies helped compel the AAP to issue its first major guidance on sex education since 2001.

“It’s important for pediatricians to have the backing to say, ‘Look, I can’t support telling this stuff to children,’” Breuner said. “I have to deal with the aftermath, which is a 15-year-old who’s pregnant, or a 16-year-old who has a sexually transmitted infection he’s going to have for the rest of his life.”

Breuner said a number of her patients have suffered consequences from abstinence-only education. Many of them are pregnant teenagers and girls who, in the absence of accurate information, came to believe in common myths about pregnancy prevention.

“They’ll say, ‘I thought you couldn’t get pregnant when you were having your period,’ or, ‘I thought it took two or three years after you get your period to be able get pregnant.’ It’s heartbreaking, because I know with education, this could have been prevented.”

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