Christine O’Donnell and the Politics of Abstinence

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Amid all the talk of the Delaware Tea Party darling’s background promoting a philosophy of abstinence so strict that it excludes what Woody Allen once called “sex with someone I love” I wondered about the state of the abstinence movement in the U.S. nowadays. It seems like something one heard of in O’Donnell’s promotional heyday about 15 years ago but not so much now. Except that I completely forgot about Bristol Palin’s recent foray into that world, in whose semi-defense TIME’s Nancy Gibbs wrote about last year, and offered some useful insights:

As for abstinence, Bristol has been right all along. She was right back in February when she said it was “not realistic,” she is right now when she says practicing it is hard, and she’s right that it is much better and safer for kids to postpone having sex. She also advocates that kids who have sex should use contraception. This has always been the embedded irony of the fight over sex education. The increased emphasis on abstinence in the past 15 years has been one factor in pushing back the age at which kids have their first sexual encounters, reducing the number of partners they have and lowering both the teen abortion rates and pregnancy rates (though this year has seen a small uptick). The problem with Abstinence Only education was not the Abstinence, it was the Only. The most effective message, as evidenced in every other industrial country with teen pregnancy rates far lower than ours, is to advocate postponement of sexual activity while providing full and complete information on contraception, decision-making and disease prevention. Which is why the President’s just released budget ends funding for programs that restrict the discussion to abstinence alone.
Nancy also wrote at greater length about “teen girl purity” in 2008, for those interested. Whatever appeal abstinence promotion may have to a core group of religious conservatives, my guess is that it does not represent the path to statewide victory in Delaware.