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Bias, Ought-from-Is Utility and the Truth in Abstinence Education

y J. Andrew Murray

In two recent releases on abstinence-only sex education, dated March 9 and 10, 2004, the Associated Press and Reuters wire services continue the trend of biased reporting moral issues. The articles summarize a study presented March 9th at the National STD Conference, which took place in Philadelphia.

An Unpublished Study

The study, authored by Columbia University's Peter Bearman and Yale's Hannah Bruckner, assesses the rates of sexually transmitted disease (STD) in teens taking one-time abstinence pledges versus teens who do not. This study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. In other words, American taxpayers funded it. While the study itself appears to contain important data and will likely be vetted through the peer-review process of scientific publication, the AP and Reuters reports draw conclusions that are not supported by the information provided.

Bearman and Bruckner's study presented data gathered from a "nationally representative sample" of about 15,000 participants initially questioned at twelve to eighteen years of age, with follow-up data collected six years later from the same individuals. The statistic that apparently interested the researchers and media organizations most was that the difference in incidence of sexually transmitted disease among teens who took a one-time abstinence pledge and those who did not was not "statistically significant."

The participants were categorized by race and ethnicity, with rates of infection among white, black and Hispanic non-pledgers reported at 3.5, 20.3 and 8.6 percent, respectively. The rates among abstinence pledgers of the same groups were 2.8, 18.1 and 6.7 percent. While the percentages are lower among those who took the abstinence pledge, the numbers are very close, which explains Professor Bearman's comment regarding statistical significance.

The Media's Take

The three major television networks, as well as Fox News and CNN, immediately and uncritically parroted the AP release, as well as the AP's conclusions. The reporting employed the skilled phraseology and subtle techniques of bias to introduce the media's anti-abstinence spin on this potentially valuable social science.

Reuter's later release was important in that it provided quotes from Bearman omitted by the AP. The AP report focused on Professor Bearman's remarks on the research, while the Reuters report includes comments that demonstrate Bearman's clear, preexisting prejudice against not only abstinence-only sex education, but also those who support it.

The media reports also failed to mention that "statistical significance" does not necessarily mean that pledging abstinence and getting an STD are not related. It just means that the data do not support the conclusion that the slight reduction in STD among some teens was due to their abstinence pledge. It could also indicate weaknesses in the study's methodology, statistical techniques, or participant sample. The likelihood of such weaknesses increases with the introduction of researcher bias.

Bearman's comments to Reuters, including "Ideological programs designed to make serious interventions into public health programs tend not to work," and his idea that advocates of abstinence-only education are "ignorant of social science research" and "defeat the purpose they set out to solve [sic]," betray biases that undermine otherwise important social science research on these topics. Because the study has not yet undergone the peer review process, it is impossible to comment on the validity of results. This impossibility apparently did not stop the media.

The AP quoted outside commentary from two others opposed to abstinence-only education. Remarking on the study, Dorothy Mann of the Family Planning Council claimed it is a "tragedy" to "withhold information from these kids about how not to get STDs or not get pregnant." More ominous were the comments of Indiana University's Donald Orr, who hoped the "study helps move sex education from a morality issue to a public health discussion."

While the AP quoted only one proponent of abstinence-only sex education, Reuters ignored opposing voices completely. Pat Fagan, of the Heritage Foundation, rightly pointed out that one-time virginity pledges are different from abstinence education, which requires years of support and education. He also stressed that "Anyone connected to the abstinence movement would never say it's enough" to take a one-time pledge.

Another Look at the Reports

Bearman, Mann, Orr, as well as the media elites who dominate this debate argue exclusively from social utility. They take an "ought-from-is" approach. In other words, because their data interpretation suggests that abstinence-only sex education is inferior to "values-neutral" sex education, then society ought to instruct children in "safe" sex techniques. A freshman philosophy major could point out that this is a circular argument. But what nobody seems to ask - not Professors Bearman and Bruckner, and certainly not the media - is what else is implied in the data.

Particularly interesting are the other facts presented in the report, which both wire services, the anti-abstinence commentators and the study's coauthor downplay. Most stunning is the statistic that ninety-nine percent of non-pledgers engaged in sex before marriage. Compare this to the study's finding that eighty-eight percent of those who took the pledge engaged in pre-marital sex. This represents a reduction of eleven percent - an excellent outcome.

Those who believe that abstinence-only education harms children argue weakly from social utility. At the same time they willfully ignore the implications of their data. If the numbers truly show no significant difference in STD incidence between pledgers and non-pledgers, then the conclusion drawn about the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education - even in the weakened, one-time form studied - is incorrect.

More accurately, abstinence only and "values-neutral" sex education have the approximately the same public health outcome. Meanwhile, eleven percent of abstinence-educated children are completely protected from STDs - ignoring the possibility of an infected future spouse - while only one percent of children receiving "values-neutral" education are so shielded.

Most disturbing was the statistic that those male pledgers who did have premarital sex were 19 percent more likely not to use a condom. Female pledgers who had premarital intercourse were 8 percent more likely not to use a condom. Female pledgers were half as likely as non-pledgers to seek STD testing. While the reports did not indicate whether these figures account for the STD incidence among pledgers, it seems likely that this is the case. Pat Fagan's reminder bears repeating. A one-time pledge is not enough.

Culture Identities and Conveyed Morals

Donald Orr and Dorothy Mann are dangerously wrong in their assertions that sex education should be a public health rather than a moral debate. Perhaps they should consult Professor Bearman, whose comments seem to arrogate a greater grasp of social science than those of us on the other side of the dispute who are supposedly "ignorant of social science research." Across geography and throughout time, sexual mores have been central to social and cultural identity. The "values-neutral" approach to sexuality in our society represents an attempt to change that cultural identity. It has resulted in a host of problems social and public health evils. At a minimum, these include widespread and increasingly lethal incidence STD infection, as well as unwed teen pregnancy.

A sociologist could also explain that morals and values are a primary way cultures pass tried-and-true survival methods to new generations. The sloppy logic of values-neutrality continues to sexualize children, encouraging them to engage in risky behavior by providing a mistaken sense of security. Those trying to solve the problem must therefore argue not only from facts, outcome and utility, but also from right and truth.

Children who make the commitment to abstinence need continuous support from family, friends, teachers and society at-large. In a cable-news channel debate on February's "Day of Purity," the host practically mocked a young man who had taken an abstinence pledge. How dare anyone judge a child who has embarked on a journey more honorable than most adults travel?

This is a moral issue. Not only must we protect the personal integrity of the pledgers, we must protect their health. The eighty-eight percent who did not live up to their pledge did not fail us. We failed them.

We must also take this study as just criticism. We must ask, "How have we let down those who pledged and failed?" I believe the answer is that we have been too complacent. For more than fifty years the arguments of moral relativism have gone unchecked. We have failed to rail against the constant pressures imposed by a lascivious media that uses sex to move product. We have paid the salaries of entertainers and athletes whose public actions send deadly messages. We have placed in high office those of low integrity, and failed to remove them when they let us down.

A Brief Apology

Notice that the above arguments leave out any Christian apologetics or worldview. This was intentional and meant to illustrate two further points.

First, members of the media and intellectual "elite" usually dismiss any Christ-centered worldview out of hand. Those who support abstinence-only education must therefore be prepared to use secular arguments along with Christian apology as a tool to bring to the side of Christ those who would otherwise not hear. We comfort ourselves in knowing that God's Truths are objective - they withstand scrutiny regardless of religious orientation. We pray that someday everyone will know the beauty of these truths.

The final point is lies along the same line. The paragraphs above contain approximately 1,413 words. This author's cumbersome attempt to argue against false teaching using only secular arguments has been inelegant at best.

In his Second Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul warns against false teachers, saying:

"They will be treacherous, reckless, pompous, lovers of pleasure rather than of God as they make a pretense of religion but negate its power. Stay clear of them. It is such as these who worm their way into homes and make captives of silly women burdened with sins and driven by desires of many kinds, always learning but never able to reach a knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:4-7 NAB).

Although he could well have added "and men" to those burdened by sin, St. Paul sums up in only sixty-seven words the argument against who make pseudo-science a new religion while preaching such false social doctrines as "values-neutral" sex education. We see that while the Truth is objective, it is more beautifully elegant when inspired by God.

Yours in Christ

Contact MD, US
J. Andrew Murray - ,



Abstinence, Youth, Education, Media, Bias, Social Science

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