Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Abstinence education is unsafe

A good engineering design is fault tolerant. A designer must realize that components are not always reliable and design accordingly. A suspension bridge shouldn't fail because a single cable breaks.

A good software design fails gracefully. In other words, when faced with unexpected or intelligible input, the program reacts in a predictable manner. The case of the USS Yorktown going dead in the water when a sailor left an unexpected zero in a database field is a great example of software that was not well-designed.

When it might be possible for a piece of equipment to be put in a state where injury or death could occur to the user, an engineer must take this into account. As a simple example, my coffee grinder can't be run with the lid off. There's an interlock that prevents it from turning on when it is possible for my hands to be near the blades.

Lastly, a good designer must take into the possibility of human error. Any potentially lethal piece of equipment, even any policy which could lead to damaging consequences, that does not take this into account is a poor one. This is why we mandate that truck drivers work at most eight hour shifts -- we acknowledge that a tired human being at the wheel is unreliable.

I guess this is why abstinence-only sex education pisses me off: it fails all these criteria. It is not fault tolerant, nor does it fail gracefully. If a kid screws up and has sex before being really ready for it, then it's more likely that he or she will wind up with an STD or a bun in the oven while still in high school (or earlier).

Abstinence education also doesn't acknowledge the possibility of human error. In my last blog post, I quoted the rather repugnant Jill Stanek where she said in a recent column decrying the HPV vaccine that she can't understand why a "virtuous young woman" would want to marry a man who wasn't a virgin. Really? She honestly can't fathom why? One can't help but wonder what Stanek's reasons for getting married actually are.

Abstinence educators are always quick to quote condom failure rates (they almost always use misleading and inaccurate information, when it's not outright falsehoods, but that's a blog post for a different day). What you never hear them cite is the failure rate for a vow of celibacy. Abstinence-only programs do not protect kids from STDs.

Not only do the religious conservatives that push abstinence-only education completely ignore the existence of gay kids, but they're pushing an unsafe agenda. There is no other activity in our society where we consider deliberate ignorance a safety strategy.

All of this is because these religiously-based programs aren't intended to stop STDs and unwanted pregnancy. They're intended to prevent sex. They're intended to prevent sin.

I her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg tells of a speech given by celibacy advocate Pam Stenzel. Stenzel was appointed by President Bush to an abstinence task force at the Department of Health and Human Services. This is how Goldberg describes Stenzel's speech at the 2003 Reclaiming America for Christ conference:

Stenzel told her audience about a conversation she’d had with a skeptical businessman on an airplane. The man had asked about abstinence education’s success rate—a question she regarded as risible. "What he’s asking," she said, "is does it work. You know what? Doesn’t matter. Cause guess what. My job is not to keep teenagers from having sex. The public schools’ job should not be to keep teens from having sex." Then her voice rose and turned angry as she shouted, "Our job should be to tell kids the truth!"

"People of God," she cried, "can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works! To truth! I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I'm answering to God!"

Later in the same talk, she explained further why what "works" isn’t what’s important—and gave some insight into what she means by "truth." "Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here," she said. "AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fist in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely."

These are the sorts of people Republicans want to turn our country over to. People who aren't interested in the actual effects of their policies, so long as they are consistent with their supernatural beliefs.

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