Sex, Marriage, and Sexuality: March 2009 Archives

I've several times seen people refer to studies showing that abstinence-only sex ed programs don't work. What they mean by that is that people who go through the abstinence-only programs aren't any more likely than those who go through comprehensive programs to have had unprotected sex. If the goal is to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies by encouraging people not ready for parenthood not to engage in sex at all, it seems not to work. I didn't look closely at any of these studies, just accepting that they were correct, because I've never favored only telling people to abstain. There's nothing wrong with providing information about condoms and hormonal methods of contraception. In fact, without providing the full information, some might never realize the failure rates of various methods of contraception and those that do choose to use them might not do so properly, thus trusting increasing the unreliability of something they rely on. So it's counterproductive for those who want to reduce sexual activity even apart from pregnancy and STDs to resist presenting comprehensive information.

Someone (I don't remember who) recently directed me to this study. I haven't checked any other studies as closel, but I checked Wikipedia for any further long-term studies on this, and I didn't find anything but this study and a study on a different topic about how some abstinence-only programs didn't do it right (i.e. they had some false information in their educational package). If this data is correct then those who have been posturing about abstinence-only programs not working have been spinning the science with as much ideologically-motivated one-sidedness as such people regularly accused the Bush Administration of doing, not exactly the best behavior among those accusing others of being anti-science for doing the same thing.

A lot of criticism of abstinence-only sex ed has been that it's lack of information about contraception leaves kids with the wrong information, thus making it more likely that they won't use proper precautions if they do have sex. This turns out to be disconfirmed. The kids who went through the abstinence-only programs were as well-informed on such matters as the kids in the control group, and they didn't have any higher rate of unprotected sex than anyone else. It may well be that comprehensive sex ed would have led to their being more informed than average, but it's not as if abstinence-only sex ed made them less-informed, as many opponents of abstinence-only have been claiming. Given this study, it seems that it's just as much anti-science to call abstinence-only education dangerous and even a cause of unwanted pregnancy and the spread of STDs as it is to promote abstinence-only education as the best method of preventing STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Such behavior is irresponsible and pretty obviously motivated by ideology while at odds with the facts, the very thing the Bush Administration has repeatedly been accused of doing on this issue.

When you look at the fine print, you can also see that this is looking at the long-term effects of early abstinence-only programs that aren't continued in high school,and according to this story they did find an initial effect of delaying the first sexual encounter that dropped off in later years, the same later years that these kids weren't continuing to receive abstinence-only sex ed. Isn't that a bit suspicious if the conclusion is supposed to be that abstinence-only sex ed doesn't work? It's not clear that this study really shows what it's been taken to show, which is that abstinence-only sex ed doesn't work.

Keep in mind also that there is a study that shows that a number of abstinence-only programs had curriicula that included falsehoods and questionable elements. So if you examine just the actual abstinence-only programs, it doesn't necessarily tell you what would happen if it were done with more care to present the correct information. Even if some of the false information might have led some to be more likely to be abstinent, it may have gone the other way with some, especially those who know the information being presented is false, which could incline some to reject everything that's being said as a result, including the abstinence message and the correct rates of failure of condoms or other contraceptive or STD-preventative measures. Remember that we're talking about teenagers here. Also, some of these programs were determined to be teaching religious doctrine. I have no idea what that means, and I'm certainly aware that some things claimed by some to be religious doctrine simply aren't, e.g, that life begins at conception, while others are, e.g. that it's morally wrong to engage in sex outside marriage (although I think a secular argument exists for such a view). But the point is that some might turn off to the whole enterprise if their view is that this is religious education.

So what they study does seem to show is that earlier abstinence-only sex ed, as it's actually been taught (as opposed to how it should be taught), doesn't seem to affect later sexual behavior if that kind of sex ed doesn't continue into high school, but it doesn't tell us anything about what happens if it does continue, and the fact that some of these programs were presenting false information might skew the results in either direction. It may well be that comprehensive sex ed would do better on the measure that we're discussing, but this study doesn't help us know that, and I know of none that do. I do see some that show increased effectiveness among those receiving comprehensive sex ed over control groups, but until we have a long-term study that actually looks at those who receive abstinence-only sex ed in high school, the facts simply aren't fully available on that question, and it would ideally help if someone could conduct a study on the best abstinence-only programs compared to abstinence-only programs as they actually occur, to see if there's any difference.

The Obama Administration has signaled that it will rescind the Bush Administration's executive order providing for freedom-of-conscience protection for health care workers who seek to refrain from activity they consider immoral. The motivation for this, according to the article, is that existing laws already provide some of the intended protection, and what the newer executive order does add might be unwelcome. The only examples given of what's unwelcome is that it would allow health care workers from refusing to take part in certain activities that might prevent abortion, such as providing information about contraceptives.

The question seems to be whether it's worse to do (1) something that has a negative consequence in making it more difficult in certain circumstances to find health care workers who won't abstain or (2) requiring people to do something they consider immoral. This should be a no-brainer for anyone who isn't a consequentialist. It's much worse to allow the unwelcome consequence than to perpetuate immorality yourself, and it's pretty downright evil to force people to do something they consider evil just because you would prefer a certain result that they might also prefer.

So this explanation won't fly. I'm curious to hear if they have anything else to offer, since I know President Obama has a track record of offering a multitude of contradictory explanations of his controversial acts, so I know he's creative with this kind of thing, but I'm having trouble seeing a motivation for this that a reasonable person could actually have.

There's a movement right now in the American Philosophical Association to prevent schools that have a code of conduct restricting sexual behavior to within heterosexual marriage from advertising in the main job market publication of the field, which is run by the APA.

Before I look to what I think is the key moral issue here, I want to make a few things clear. One is that the current APA policy allows de facto discrimination on the part of participating institutions. The proposed change would mean the APA is actually engaging in discrimination, because they would be excluding schools with a statement of faith or moral code of a certain sort. If you have a choice between allowing someone else to engage in de facto discrimination and engaging in discrimination yourself, then other things being equal you ought to do the former. Aside from pure consequentialists, most philosophers should be willing to count that in favor of retaining the current practice, other things being equal.

The second is that the discrimination in question is merely de facto, not facial. I've seen people calling it facial discrimination, and it's plainly not. This distinction is found in legal discussions, including court decisions going all the way up to the Supreme Court. Facial discrimination is basically discrimination that wears its discrimination on the surface or on its face. Facial discrimination on the basis of race is discrimination for the obvious reason of the person's race. De facto discrimination, on the other hand, is simply an effect of diminishing the likelihood of inclusion by someone of the group in question. A policy of giving priority to people you know when you hire a new employee has the effect of giving white employers more likelihood of white employees, and since white employers are more often interviewing for top jobs you will see a racial effect given that people's friends more often than not are disproportionally one's own race compared to the percentages in the general population. Courts have consistently refused to tolerate de facto discrimination claims as legally problematic for obvious reasons. There has to be intent to discriminate on the basis of race for a race discrimination claim, and it pretty much has to wear it on its face.

In this case the kind of discrimination we're dealing with is not sexual orientation discrimination on its face. The discriminating element is a choice to hire people who share one's views and/or practices. These schools are hiring only those who will sign a statement of faith or conduct that includes either the view that same-sex sexual relations are immoral or a commitment not to engage in such practices. This will indeed certainly have a disproportionate effect of eliminating gay people more than straight people, but it's not discrimination according to sexual orientation. It's discrimination according to moral viewpoint or behavior.

Third, some people in this discussion are simply insisting on consistency with the APA's existing policy on discrimination. They want the APA to change their discrimination statement if they're going to allow these institutions to participate. If these people are being honest, then they wouldn't mind one way or the other if the APA (a) stops allowing these schools to participate or (b) removes their language against discrimination from their official stances. I tend to doubt that this is a very large group who care only about consistency. I suspect most of the people signing this thing are advocating just (a) and would disapprove of (b). But I think those making the consistency argument should not use it alone to favor (a) over (b).

But I don't think any of those concerns gets to the heart of the central moral issue here. The main difficulty I see is that the APA has to decide between (1) allowing schools that de facto discriminate and (2) enacting their own discriminatory practice. They need a clear argument why their own discrimination would be much less bad than merely tolerating someone else's. I think we in fact face the opposite situation, but that's what's going to take some argument. The rest of the post is my reasoning for that claim.

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