Steep Costs for Abstinence Only Programs

As Texas GoesI don't watch the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC that often. Even though I agree with her politics more often than not, I find her almost constant snark more than a little annoying. And I rarely have the patience to sit through her long-winded introductions. But I have often enjoyed her interviews, and I caught a particularly interesting one this week. It led me to think a bit differently about some of the issues I've addressed here many times (e.g., abstinence only sex education).

Maddow's guest was Gail Collins, a columnist for the New York Times, who was there to talk about her new book, As Texas Goes...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. I hadn't heard of this book before, but I believe it is one I'm going to have to read.

Collins' thesis, as described in the interview, was that we may need to ask ourselves some difficult questions when it comes to balancing the rights of states with the larger public interest. When a state adopts policies known to be harmful and persists with them despite overwhelming evidence that they are harmful, the cost of such policies extend well beyond the borders of that state.

Collins noted that an overwhelming majority of Texas public schools (something like 94%) rely on abstinence only programs in place of reality-based sex education. They continue to do this despite ample evidence that abstinence only programs are ineffective. But really, they are worse than ineffective. Study after study shows that children who receive abstinence only programs have higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases than those who receive sex education that includes information on contraception. These findings have been widely disseminated, and yet, Texas persists in relying on abstinence.

And what does Texas receive in exchange for its faith in abstinence only? High rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, infant mortality, child poverty, and staggering health care costs. But here's the kicker - these costs end up being passed on to the rest of us in the form of Medicaid and other public assistance programs. In essence, U.S. taxpayers, regardless of where they live, are having to pick up the bill for Texas' reliance on abstinence only programs.

Collins suggested that it may be time for the rest of us to give Texas an ultimatum of sorts: If you can cover all the costs your ineffective programs are incurring, fine; if not, the rest of us are going to insist that you to adopt effective programs.

Of course, Texas is not the only state doing this. Collins picked on Texas, but most of what she said applies to many red states. I see the same thing happening here in Mississippi.

Neither Collins or Maddow mentioned the factor which is obviously driving abstinence only programs in the U.S.: evangelical fundamentalist Christianity. Not surprisingly, I usually end up emphasizing this when I write about abstinence programs and other seriously flawed approaches to education. But it occurs to me that I don't have to. There are other interesting arguments to explore.