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Health & Parenting

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Abstinence vs. Sex Ed.

Which approach is most reasonable for today's kids?

The Risks Teens Face

The supporters of abstinence argue that it is the only infallible way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. But, by definition, abstinence works only when teens are sexually inactive -- without exception. Unfortunately, statistics indicate that one-fourth of 15-year-olds have had sexual intercourse at least once, and more than half of 17-year-olds are sexually active, according to the Institute.

The risks are even more startling: A sexually active teenage girl who has sex without contraception has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year, according to the Institute. Just as disturbing is that in a single act of vaginal intercourse with an infected male partner, a female teenager has a 30% risk of contracting genital herpes, a 50% chance of contracting gonorrhea, and a 1 in 100 chance of acquiring HIV.

Which Approach Is Best?

To advocates of the abstinence-only approach, these disturbing statistics make it abundantly clear that a simple message of "no sex outside of marriage" for teens is the only appropriate one for educators to take. "The responsibility of a public institution serving kids is risk avoidance, not harm reduction," says Peter Brandt, President of the National Coalition for Abstinence Education in Colorado Springs and the parent of twotwenty-somethings. "Schools teach 'no smoking' and 'no drinking.' They don't say 'if you smoke, use a filter' or 'if you drink and drive, wear your safety belt.' Why should sex be treated differently?"

To advocates of an approach that includes contraception information, the answer to this question is easy. "Unlike smoking, which is always bad for you, sexual behavior is a basic human need which can be a positive experience -- although it requires maturity and responsibility," says Michael McGee, vice president for education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York City and the father of two teenagers. When it comes to prohibiting or limiting information about contraception, McGee says,"pregnancy and STDs are not something teens should be ignorant about preventing. I think it is morally irresponsible to deprive young people of information that can save their lives."

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