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Abstinence program also research project

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Abstinence is not just about restraining from sexual activity, it’s also about teaching resistance and critical thinking skills needed to check impulses that lead to risky behaviors.

That’s how the framers of SWAG, Success With Adolescent Goals, explain their community-based abstinence education project that’s funded by the federal government with matching state funds.

Of course, in New Mexico, which leads the nation in teen births, delaying sex is undeniably a big part of the abstinence message, explained Susan Cardenas, who along with Mark Kittleson are the health education researchers at New Mexico State University overseeing the program.

“There are some more conservative communities where parents don’t want someone instructing their kids about contraceptives, and that’s their prerogative,” Cardenas said. “But we still need to reach out to these parents and kids in any we can and cover as much territory as possible, particularly because of New Mexico’s high teen birth rate.”

Teen birth rates in New Mexico and nationwide have been declining; still, with 47.5 births per 1,000 teens age 15-19, New Mexico still leads the country.

Opponents of the program say it’s a waste of financial resources and redundant because comprehensive sexuality education, which includes abstinence, is already taught through the public schools.

Further, they say, abstinence-only education has been shown to be ineffective according to numerous studies, the best known of them being a 2004 report from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform.

SWAG targets young people aged 12-17 in six counties – Lea, Chaves, Eddy, Doña Ana, Luna and Cibola. Thus far, the program has reached 765 youth, with classes taught mostly in community and multi-generational centers. Parents of minors must give permission.

Both Cardenas and Kittelson say SWAG differs in significant ways from abstinence-only programs of the past, which they acknowledge were widely criticized for providing medically inaccurate information, and for their promotion of a religious and politically conservative agenda.

Following revised federal guidelines, SWAG does not allow religious proselytizing. Neither does it address contraceptive usage.

It does, however, provide participants with detailed information about sexually transmitted diseases, and teaches young people about anatomy and physiology.

The focus, said Kittelson, is on factors that can reduce risk. The curriculum includes such things as teaching about “healthy and unhealthy relationships,” interpersonal communications, skills to resist peer pressure, goals and planning for the future, and “understanding the connections between actions and consequences.”

The program is funded at 57 percent by the federal government and 43 percent by the state. Between October 2012 and September 2015, more than $2.3 million in federal and state dollars, and state “in-kind” funding will have been funneled into SWAG.

The state DOH “thought the abstinence program should be run as a research project through NMSU because we have the methodological expertise to do that study,” Kittelson said. He added that data is still being collected to determine its success.

Dr. Bruce Trigg, who retired from the New Mexico Department of Health, where he was director of programs on sexually transmitted diseases, after 23 years, said studies have already determined that abstinence-only education is not successful.

“The state with the highest rate of teen births in the U.S. should be focused on increasing and providing accurate information on contraceptives, and actually providing contraceptives in the schools, rather than telling kids to not have sex,” he said.

Likewise, Denicia Cadena, communications director of Young Women United, an Albuquerque-based community organizing and policy advocacy group for young women of color, said the continued studying and funding of abstinence-only programs is a “misguided” use of limited resources. “I would rather see resources directed at comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate sexuality education.”

The point of comprehensive sexuality education is not to reduce teen birth rates; rather, she said, “it’s so young people can have the resources and education they need to make healthy choices about their bodies and their lives.”