Should teenagers be taught the need to simply refrain from sexual activity, or should sex-education courses be more "comprehensive," including information about contraceptive measures?
That's the essence of a longrunning debate in the United States, one likely to rekindle this year as federal funding for abstinence programs in schools comes up for renewal. Such programs have been on the increase since the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 allocated $250 million to promote chastity among the young.
That sum, designed to be matched by state funds, greatly surpasses any other federal spending on sex education.
Courses in schools are only one front in the campaign for sexual abstinence. Some church groups also are active. Their goal is to have teens sign pledges to avoid sexual relationships before marriage.
How effective is that? A recent federal study of 6,800 questionnaires filled out by students found that, on average, teenagers who have made such pledges refrain from sexual relationships 18 months longer than peers who've made no such pledge. Abstinence advocates have taken heart in this finding. At the least, it seems to indicate that taking a stand, typically in the company of others, can affect behavior.
But the study also raises questions about the varying depths of such commitments. Plenty of those who pledged didn't keep the full commitment of no sex before marriage.
Further, in some instances, pledging became more a fad than a matter of deep commitment.
This raises a central question: What has to be going on within the individual to make a commitment to abstinence stick? Religious training is a factor. So is the young person's sense of the importance of doing well in school in order to succeed later in life.
Pledges are fine, but if they're not made deep within the heart, they could prove flimsy.
Those on the other side of the sex- education debate who favor a "comprehensive" approach argue that programs focusing solely on abstinence are of little relevance to the roughly half of American teens who are sexually active by age 17.
And they have a point.
Youngsters need honest, practical information, certainly. But let's remember this issue reaches much deeper than whose philosophy prevails in sex-ed classrooms.
A fundamental need of all teens is moral clarity about the responsibilities inherent in intimate relationships and individuals' readiness to take them on.
That need won't be met solely by a single type of curriculum or program. An array of thoughtful and persistent educational efforts - in homes, schools, and churches - is needed.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society