Ethics & Public Policy Center

Science, Politics, and Sex Ed.



According to a report by the staff of Representative Henry Waxman of California, a Democrat and frequent critic of the Bush administration, at least some high school students who have taken part in abstinence-only sex education programs funded by the federal government have been given “false, misleading, or distorted information.” Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post notes that these poor benighted children have been taught, among other things, “that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide” and that “touching a person”s genitals ‘can result in pregnancy’.” Of course one would like to see the context, but I wonder if even so ardent a pro-choice Democrat as Mr Waxman would like to take his oath that abortion can’t lead to sterility or suicide or even that the touching of genitals can’t result in pregnancy? Doesn’t it sort of depend on what it is that’s touching them — and where that touching is likely to lead?

Further examples of these woeful “misconceptions” in the various school curricula studied for the report included, again by Miss Connolly’s account, the claim that “a 43-day-old fetus is a ‘thinking person.’” But surely, whether it is or not depends on whether your idea of “thinking” requires actual ratiocination — in which case even some adult fetuses could not count as thinking persons — or any sort of brain function as measurable by an EEG? If thinking means conscious and capable of reasoning, even the most Neanderthal of pro-lifers is unlikely to have claimed so much on behalf of a six-week old fetus. But if there are brain waves and therefore brain activity, as there are at that stage, why should you begrudge the tiny creature the title of “thinking person” — unless you have, as Mr Waxman’s staff presumably does have, a very good reason for wishing to deny it?

One begins to suspect that the Waxman/Washington Post version of true sexual information could at least as easily be impugned if it were subjected to the sharp scrutiny of those who are ideologically opposed to them, but Miss Connolly appears to have a touchingly naïve faith in what she calls “nonpartisan researchers.” The claim of one of the sex-ed curricula she cites, for instance, that up to ten per cent of women who have abortions become sterile is supposedly contradicted by “the 2001 edition of a standard obstetrics textbook that says fertility is not affected by elective abortion” — as if obstetrics textbooks couldn’t have political agendas of their own. I remember hearing once of a carefully constructed scientific study which purported to demonstrate that abortions rarely if ever produced long-lasting emotional effects on the women who had had them — though the study did note as a curious by-product of its investigation the fact half the women surveyed denied that they had ever had an abortion. So, no emotional after-effects there, then!

I very much doubt there is any such thing as a purely scientific, “nonpartisan researcher” in the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding this whole question in America today. And the language in which the allegedly scientific facts are discussed is a product of the same moral relativism which produced abortion and no-fault sexuality in the first place. Even a supporter of teaching abstinence wrote in a letter to the Post about Miss Connolly’s article that “Although some abstinence-only education programs may misrepresent facts in an effort to promote a morally conservative agenda, several outstanding programs promote abstinence from a truthful and complete position and without a moral agenda.” Hang on a minute there! Just why is it again that supporters of abstinence have to apologize for their “moral agenda”? Don’t the supporters of sexual laissez-faire have any moral agenda of their own? Or does it only count as “moral” if it counsels restraint?

That would seem to be the view of a great many of those who claim that “science” is on the side of moral laxity. They may have come to it through a dim perception that to teach morality would be to teach religion and therefore amount to a violation of what everyone knows to be the very foundation-stone of our constitutional democracy, namely the separation of church and state. In fact, you’ve got to wonder how the republic survived its first 170 odd years until this principle was discovered by the Warren Court to have lurked all along, unrecognized, in the Constitution’s First Amendment. But I wonder if it is really possible to teach at all — at least in the subjects I am used to teaching, namely literature and the humanities, without at least assuming some morality, even if you decline — as, of course, nowadays one must decline — to make it explicit. Are not the compilers of the report themselves assuming a morality and not merely displaying a scientific interest if they claim that it is wrong to teach that there ought to be moral restraints on sexuality. How is it more scientific to say that there ought not to be? Or that kids ought to be left to make up their own minds?

In practice everyone recognizes that it is simply not possible to approach sexual matters without some sense of moral discrimination. Why not, then encourage the teaching of sexual wisdom in the young, which could very easily be done without any reference to religion? For answer, just consider this example of Representative Waxman’s alleged misinformation:

Some course materials cited in Waxman”s report present as scientific fact notions about a man’s need for “admiration” and “sexual fulfillment” compared with a woman”s need for “financial support.” One book in the “Choosing Best” series tells the story of a knight who married a village maiden instead of the princess because the princess offered so many tips on slaying the local dragon. “Moral of the story,” notes the popular text: “Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright [sic], but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.”

Is this then, we want to ask, untrue? Well, not exactly. But it is very likely to be found offensive by those of the feminist persuasion. Not that there could be any unscientific morality there! In order avoid the question of the teaching’s truth or falsity, Miss Connolly wishes to claim only that it is not “scientific.” I very much doubt that the offending curriculum ever claimed that it was scientific, because it obviously could not be. It is a normative judgment of a kind that everybody at some time has to make, and into the realm of normative judgments about human behavior science is simply powerless to follow us. The apparent expectation that it should on the part of the critics of abstinence curricula is evidence that an altogether different part of the curriculum has been neglected in their case.

 

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