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Forget Abstinence Only: Let’s End Government Sex Ed Completely

The state shouldn't intrude on a responsibility that's best left to the family.
Sex ed

Last month, a federal judge blocked the Trump administration from ending certain Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants early. The administration’s logic was that the programs—initially planned to end in 2020, then moved up to 2018—were ineffective at preventing teen pregnancies.

So now the Trump administration has released new rules for how teen pregnancy prevention efforts will be funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. Although they don’t completely pivot away from funding programs that provide contraception and sex education, there’s a shift towards encouraging abstinence-only programs.

Any good conservative would be quick to point out that discouraging sex and risky behavior isn’t something to admonish. But most studies conclude that abstinence programs don’t work. As renowned sex researcher Douglas Kirby wrote, there’s no good evidence that abstinence-only “delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners.”

Interestingly, a 2017 Psychology Today review of 15 separate studies came to the conclusion that school-based sex education in general is relatively ineffective—whether it be abstinence- or risk reduction-based—despite it’s being regarded as a holy state function by social liberals.

To those who are skeptical of government intervention, this comes as no surprise.

But something positive is happening without state intrusion: teen pregnancy is decreasing and abstinence from sex is increasing—by nearly five percentage points for high school students between 2005 and 2015. If this isn’t the government at play, what accounts for such a shift? It could be culture or teens who are increasingly plugged into social media. Or it could be the influence of the family.

The family, rather than the government, is the building block of society, and in personal matters strong families will always yield better results than a strong state.

When the government funds ineffective sex education programs, parents are tacitly encouraged to sidestep their traditional responsibilities and let the state take control. That absolves parents of responsibility in favor of a poor substitute: a state espousing propaganda—or at least bureaucratic biases—to children. Such education is the role of loving familial conversations, not government instruction. In some cases, the state even usurps the family’s duty to instill moral values in children altogether, and the values it transmits differ from what the family would otherwise espouse. Programs that promote contraception or abortion may (and often do) violate belief systems that families would like to pass on to their children.

This should concern everybody. Parents—not the state or Planned Parenthood—have the most vested interest in the outcomes of their children. They know their children better than any other adult thanks to strong emotional connections that can’t be emulated by instructors who tend to see students as mere statistics. Because there is no one-size-fits-all sex ed talk that the state can apply, it should be up to parents to lead the discussion.

Many have pointed out that sex education is in the public interest. Yet that’s the core reason the state needs to get out. When the state infringes on the natural role of a family, it is not protecting the public interest, but rather launching an all-out assault on it.

A family is a hierarchical political order that predates the state and society. When socialist philosophy was threatening familial stability in the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical titled Rerum Navarum in which he argued that a family has rights at least equal to a state in its pursuit of its preservation and liberty. Families, too, have a natural role in society and valid authority that transcends state power in matters traditionally reserved for them. If a state were to enforce policies that hindered the flourishing of families or took over their natural responsibilities, that “society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.” Socialists, the pontiff warned, act against natural justice and destroy the home by trying to control family decisions.

Thomas E. Woods, in his book The Church and the Market, outlines the myriad ways in which the state has usurped the role of the family. One example he gives is Medicare. While seemingly well-intentioned, increased funding to the elderly discourages children from taking care of aging parents because that role has been assumed by government. While the state can offer certain services, a nursing home and a check can never provide the same love that a child can, and assuming so only drives children and parents apart. The same is true of programs meant to assist single parents: they encourage couples to separate when they have problems because there’s less financially at stake. And so on.

The state tries to be your children when you’re old, your parents when you’re young, and your aunt and uncle when you’re poor. In doing so, they incentivize less familial reliance and support.

Take the case of Alfie Evans, whose parents the British government prevented from taking their son out of the country to receive emergency care. The state won the battle, the toddler was taken off life support, and Alfie’s parents’ wishes were trumped. In this case, as with so many others, the state’s ability to supersede the interests of the family showed the dangerous direction in which we’re headed.

If the state claims that it must take over a traditional role of the family, then the burden of proof should be on the state. The family has a crucial part to play in society, one that can’t be easily filled by distant bureaucrats.

Liz Wolfe is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas. She publishes regularly at Reason, Playboy, and the Washington Examiner. Tyler Arnold is a freelance journalist and a Young Voices Advocate. His work can be seen in National Review, the Washington Free Beacon, The American Conservative, and other outlets.



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