Education: Sex and Schools

AIDS and the Surgeon General add a new urgency to an old debate

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But conservatives have their own favorite research, described by one of the authors in the Wall Street Journal but not yet generally available: two studies by Utah researchers named Stan Weed and Joseph Olsen. Their major finding is that during a period when the number of teens using family-planning clinics rose from 300,000 to 1.5 million, the teen pregnancy rate actually increased 19%. Births were down, they said, but only because of abortion. "Apparently the programs are more effective at convincing teens to avoid birth than to avoid pregnancy," Weed wrote in the Journal. The point: teens tend to get pregnant not because of lack of information or birth-control devices but because of social and psychological factors, including low self- esteem, impulsiveness and a bleak economic future. In response, the Alan Guttmacher Institute charged that the Journal piece contained "numerous inaccuracies." The number of adolescent pregnancies has decreased for the past three years on record, 1980-83, said the institute, and the pregnancy rate has declined as well.

Another study tends to back the Weed-Olsen view. Deborah Anne Dawson, as a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins, found that two-thirds of girls between 15 ; and 19 have had some instruction about birth control and pregnancy, with only 16% lacking any such education at all. Her conclusion: teaching about birth control and pregnancy has no significant effect on the pregnancy rate among teens, presumably because teenagers are more emotional than rational about sex and its risks. Says Boston's Huriwitz: "Adolescent sex is spontaneous, based on passion and the moment, not thought and reason. They don't worry about AIDS because they think it will never happen to them, no matter what we tell them. And I don't know how we change that."

A few programs incorporating discussions of AIDS were already under way before Koop's report. Last spring, after a student and staff member in two public schools were diagnosed as having AIDS, Boston prepared a 28-minute AIDS videotape filled with medical facts but also polite circumlocutions, including the message that AIDS spreads through blood and semen and "intimate sexual contact." For Boston, that was a shift. "Look, ten years ago, you couldn't even mention intimate sexual contact in this town," says Michael Grady, medical director for the Boston public schools. Grady's defense of the vagueness: "We'd rather do a little education than none at all." This fall Greater Miami began offering comprehensive AIDS information as part of its sex-education program. AIDS is mentioned briefly to seventh-graders as one of many sexually transmitted diseases. Tenth-graders get a more thoroughgoing five hours focused on it. Parents are mostly pleased.

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