Abstinence Ed. vs. Contraception Ed.: Getting To The Heart Of The Matter

By Jerry Beckett

The overriding difficulty with the Abstinence Ed vs. Contraception Ed. debate is that both positions stem from opposing moral positions, and these positions are rarely, if ever, acknowledged as the engines which drive the opposing camps.

The debate goes something like this:

Abstinence: We want to prevent our kids from getting pregnant and/or getting STDs. The most effective way of achieving this end is to teach them not to engage in sex.

Contraception: It is naïve to think that teenagers won’t have sex. What happens when they give in to the temptation, as we know they will? They need to know how to protect themselves when they are having sex.

Note: At this point, it would be interesting if the Abstinence Ed. supporters would pursue the option of pointing out the Contraception side’s contradictory premises: that a) teenagers do not possess the self-control to refrain from initiating sexual intercourse 100% of the time, but simultaneously possess the even greater self-control required to, after initiating sexual intercourse, 1) Stop 2) Pull out a condom 3) Apply it correctly, and to do this 100% of the time. However, I have yet to see this in public debate, though it has come up in private conversation.

Abstinence: The message of “The safest way is to not have sex, but if you do engage in sex, which we’ll be talking about at great length for the rest of this and every presentation, here’s how to reduce the risk.” is akin to the message of “The safest way to stay out of trouble (with your parents, teachers, authorities, whomever) is to not do something you shouldn’t do. However, if you decide to do something you shouldn’t do, here’s how to avoid the consequences.”

Both messages are saying the same thing: “The safest option is to not [do something you are tempted to do but shouldn’t], but if you [do something you are tempted to do but shouldn’t] here’s how to avoid the consequences.”

Anyone with an ounce of experience knows that a teenager (or pretty much anyone, for that matter) will be inclined to opt for the second choice in each of these messages. What parent in their right mind would make such a statement to their child?

Contraception: You’re making a values statement, equating teenagers having sex with them doing something they shouldn’t do. You can’t enforce your values/religious beliefs/morals on everyone!

Abstinence: So you’re saying that teenagers having sex is not something that they should discouraged from doing?

Contraception: It’s up for each person to decide.

While the Abstinence side makes some good points, on the surface the Contraception side seems to have carried the day with “You can’t enforce your values/religious beliefs/morals on everyone!” and “It’s up to each person to decide.”, which, in our increasingly relativistic society, tend to serve as debate-enders. However, there are multiple flaws in these statements.

For starters, while the “You can’t enforce your values/religious beliefs/morals on everyone else!” charge has been very effective at cowing folks into silence and even acquiescence, it contains a superfluous and erroneous over-reach: the rightness or wrongness of teenage sex (or any sexual matter) is not a “religious belief”, but a moral position. It is true that one’s religious beliefs can and do inform one’s moral position; however, there nothing unconstitutional about one’s religious beliefs informing one’s moral positions, as to prevent such a thing would be nigh impossible. Everyone has religious beliefs – atheism is a religious belief, even “I don’t give a fig about religion” is a religious belief – and these beliefs shape our individual moral outlook whether we acknowledge that fact or not.

So the statement made by contraceptive ed. proponents, if they are concerned with accuracy, should be “You can’t enforce your values/morals on everyone else!” This statement, however, is undermined by two things:

1. Their response to “So you’re saying that teenagers having sex is not something that they should discouraged from doing?”, because “It’s up for each person to decide” is itself a moral position. No one would say that whether to cheat, steal, or harm someone is a moral matter that “It’s up for each person to decide”, because those actions are inherently wrong in a moral sense. Therefore, to say that “It’s up for each person to decide” whether teenagers engaging in sex is bad, good, or neutral is to say that it is not inherently wrong. This is a moral position. Therefore, “You can’t enforce your values/morals on everyone else!” amounts to the statement “You can’t enforce your values/morals on everyone else while I’m trying to enforce my values/morals on everyone else!” This statement is either intellectually dishonest or hypocritical, depending on whether one could actually believe such a thing.

2. As I understand it, Sex Ed. (of either variety) is not optional in public schools, and comes as either Abstinence or Contraception Ed., depending on which way the local school board is leaning. Therefore, students are being force-fed either Abstinence or Contraception Ed. Following on #1, in schools where contraception ed. is taught or being proposed, the contraception ed. folks apparently have no objection to enforcing their values/morals on students, which vitiates both “You can’t enforce your values/morals on everyone else” and “It’s up to each person to decide.”

So at the bottom of all this back-and-forth is the reality that the debate is between folks who hold the moral position that teenagers having sex is an inherently wrong act and those who take the moral position that teenagers having sex is not an inherently wrong act. The shriek of the latter group that those of belonging to the former are “pushing their morals/values” on others is hypocritical, self-serving palaver.

I would offer the following solution: If both Abstinence and Contraception Ed. were offered in public schools, which each individual student (and therefore, their parents) given the option of which to attend, there would not be much of a debate. Frankly, I don’t see why this has not been seriously proposed. For religious schools, I would hope (and for any school that hopes to get my tuition money, demand) that sex education be taught from the viewpoint and within the framework of the religion of that institution, which is their moral duty and their constitutional right.

– Jerry Becket

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