Earlier today I had the privilege of testifying on the topic of abstinence-only education before my colleagues on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee at their hearing entitled "Domestic Abstinence-Only Programs: Assessing the Evidence." The subject of abstinence-only education and its ineffectiveness is one that I am very familiar with. Long before I entered the halls of Congress, I spent 20 years working in public schools as a school nurse and health educator.
My responsibilities then were to make decisions that best met the health needs of my students and school district, much as they are now to make decisions that best represent the needs of my constituents and the American people. As a public health nurse I always stressed prevention as the most important component of health education. Teaching young people about healthy behaviors, including the risks associated with unprotected sex and teen pregnancy, were important messages that needed to be conveyed.
I know from my firsthand experience what does and doesn't work with youth. That is why I promoted comprehensive health education for students, including information about reproduction and decision making associated with sex. Mitigating the risk of sexually transmitted disease and prevent pregnancy are important life skills teens must know. Withholding this information from them is doing a horrible disservice and one that runs contrary to my training and education as a public health nurse, which mandate that I always act in the best interests of my patients - in this case, my students.
I have been part of many curriculum review panels at both the school site and the school district level. These panels always included parents, teachers, administrators, board members and health professionals, such as pediatricians from the community.
As a school nurse, I also had the privilege of directing a program for pregnant and parenting teens which allowed them to stay in a regular high school with their peers. Part of this program was, of course, to provide day care for the babies of these young parents so that they could attend class. But more importantly, the teen parenting program provided education on life skills, with an emphasis on parenting, as well as education on how to prevent or delay further teen pregnancies. After all, teen parents are all too likely to have a second birth relatively soon - about one fourth of teenage mothers have a second child within 24 months of the first birth.
According to a 2005 CDC study, 46.8% of all high school students reported having had sexual intercourse. For high school seniors, this figure reaches 63.1%. The bottom line is, as much as parents and teachers alike stress abstinence among teens, sexual activity is a reality for many young people. So what can we do to confront this reality?
Some say that abstinence-only education is the answer. But claiming that the only proper information to share with teens, even teens who are already parents, is abstinence-only and nothing else, means withholding scientifically-based medical information. This is completely unrealistic.
Of course abstinence should be at the core of any comprehensive sexual education curriculum - practicing 100% complete abstinence is 100% effective in preventing pregnancy. For many young people, this message reinforces positive behaviors, but it is not realistic to expect such behavior from all teens. So the best thing we can do to protect young people from the negative consequences of unsafe sex is to give them the information they need. We know this works.
A National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy study revealed that over 40% of comprehensive education programs that were evaluated delayed the initiation of sex and more than 60% reduced unprotected sex. Furthermore, no comprehensive program hastened the initiation of sex or increased the frequency of sex. Conversely, just last year, a federally-funded evaluation of the Title V abstinence-only programs conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. found no evidence that these programs increased rates of sexual abstinence.
Over the past decade we have spent over 1.3 billion in Federal dollars on abstinence-only education, event though scientific study after scientific study has shown that these programs are ineffective and often contain false information. Given these findings and the limited financial resources available for public health programs, we should not invest a penny more of precious taxpayer dollars in programs that are clearly are failing to provide our kids with the information they need to make safe and healthy choices.
Instead we should be focusing our efforts - and our federal funding - on comprehensive approaches to sexual education that do work. That is why I am proud to be a cosponsor of legislation such as the Responsible Education About Life, or REAL Act and the Prevention First Act. It is in the best public health interest of our entire society to ensure that students are receiving scientifically and medically accurate information that will enable them to make the healthiest lifestyle decisions.
Here's the audio and video of Congresswoman Capps testifying on the topic of abstinence-only education before her colleagues on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee at their hearing, "Domestic Abstinence-Only Programs: Assessing the Evidence."
Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA) is a registered nurse who spent twenty years working as a public health educator in Santa Barbara area public schools. She now sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health and serves as the Democratic Co-Chair of the Nursing Caucus and Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues.