Friday, July 11, 2008

Social Conservatives and the Big Abstinence Lie

Any time one engages fundamentalist social conservatives on the subject of birth control and teen pregnancy, one is likely to hear the Big Abstinence Lie ™ and Kevin McCullough doesn’t disappoint:

”Of course logical people everywhere are still scratching their heads at that one, because it is 100% scientifically provable that abstinence - when practiced is always 100% reliable. “

While this may sound reasonable at a glance, it is really a bit of logical sophistry mixed with some basic denial of the complexities of life.

In the first place, the claim is simply empirically incorrect, since an abstinent woman can become pregnant, or catch an STD, from being raped, being the unfortunate victim of a medical mistake (ie Ryan White or Arthur Ashe), or getting too close to a young man who, well, has less bodily control than he will have later in life. But more importantly, this claim ignores the fact that there are two kinds of error in any endeavor: application error, and functional error. For example, with the strategy of wearing a condom, forgetting to wear it is application error. The condom breaking is functional error. Both can result in the unwanted effects of disease and pregnancy, so both must be considered. For people to make the claim that McCullough does they must either pretend application error doesn’t exist, or that for some reason, the ill effects of it are somehow less important than those same ill effects acquired by other means.

To illustrate most starkly how silly McCullough’s position is, just apply the same thinking to an alcoholic trying to stay sober. It is 100% scientifically provable that abstinence from drinking - when practiced is always 100% reliable. “Yeah”, says the alcoholic, “but it is the abstaining I have a hard time with”. Likewise with teens and sex. An Abstinence program does not forcibly keep children from having sex. All it does is tell them to not have sex and hope they don’t. Claiming that the program was a success because all who did so remained disease and pregnancy free is small comfort to those that weren’t able to. It is sophistry of the worst kind.

Worse yet, the social conservatives aren’t consistent in the way they evaluate alternatives to abstinence. Here is Jennifer Roback Morse:

”The advocates of contraception have finally admitted in public what some of us have known for a while: The Pill doesn't work very well. Professor James Trussell of Princeton, one of the world experts on failure rates of various forms of contraception, told a conference in the UK: ‘One in 12 women taking the Pill gets pregnant each year because they miss so many tablets. ….Half of all pregnancies in America are unintended and half of those happen because contraception failed or was not taken properly, the rest were not using any contraception.’”

So to summarize, when someone chooses the pill as their birth control method, and gets pregnant as a result of failing to take the pill properly, that counts as a failure of the method. But when someone chooses abstinence as their method, and gets pregnant through failure to be abstinent, that doesn’t count as a failure of the method. Can you say “double standard” boys and girls? I knew you could.

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