ATLANTA — Sexually transmitted disease is rampant in America: Across the country, at any given time, 110 million people are afflicted with chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts, syphilis and other sometimes silent, sometimes painfully obvious, damaging diseases.
That means that one in two Americans will be infected by an STD at some point in their life.
But despite this evidence of a comprehensive failure in existing strategies to control the spread of STDs, the nation’s public-health establishment continues to give short shrift to promoting sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage as a primary means of prevention.
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in February, there are 19.7 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections in America every year.
Half of the cases are among young people, aged 15 to 24. And one in four American teenagers is infected every year — worse odds than a game of Russian roulette.
The CDC estimates the total direct medical costs of this epidemic to be about $16 billion per year. But the life-altering costs of the diseases that cause pain, shame, declined school performance, increased poverty, infertility, difficult pregnancies, genital and cervical cancer and neonatal transmissions of infections are incalculable.
In a commentary for CNN in April, describing “How Sexually Active Young People Can Stay Safe,” Gail Bolan, the director of the CDC’s STD prevention division, said the health and economic toll of sex-related disease was “totally preventable. “
“With increased awareness, prevention, testing and treatment, we can bring this hidden epidemic into the spotlight and safeguard the health of young people, while saving the nation billions of dollars in the process,” she said.
Yet absent from the entire article was the idea of preventing disease by waiting to have sex until marriage and then faithful monogamy — the message of so-called “abstinence education.”
And financially, too, abstinence education has been seriously set back under the Obama administration.
In April, the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) issued an alert after President Obama advised the Department of Health and Human Services to redistribute a portion of Title V funding, which allocates $50 million to the states for abstinence education, to programs that focus on contraceptive use instead.
“Current federal sex-education policy has a staggering 16:1 disparity in funding against the sexual-risk avoidance — commonly known as abstinence education,” Valerie Huber, president of NAEA told the Register. “The current priority is on teen-pregnancy prevention, which is only sexual-risk reduction at best. The purpose is no longer to provide teens the information and skills to avoid all sexual risk by waiting for sex — the purpose is merely to reduce the risk of pregnancy by encouraging teens to use contraception when they have sex.”
And they do so even though most teens are not sexually active, and two-thirds of those who are wish they had waited.
Regarding Bolan’s remarks on CNN, Huber said, “The CDC revealed that one in four teen girls has at least one STD. Of the four most prevalent STDs among teens, two of the four [HPV and chlamydia] can be easily transmissible — even with the use of a condom. This should cause pause among those interested in the optimal health for youth.”
“Authentic and fail-safe avoidance is only possible with sexual delay,” added Huber, who said that parents of all political persuasions prefer the abstinence-based approach.
Real Prevention Not Discussed
Catholic author and speaker Mary Beth Bonacci, whose organization Real Love Incorporated promotes an integrated understanding of sexuality, love and chastity among young people, also had trouble with Bolan’s remarks.
“Her article says that all STIs [sexually transmitted infections] are preventable, which is true,” said Bonacci. “But it fails to mention how they are prevented.”
Real prevention wasn’t discussed at all by Bolan, Bonacci noted. “The CDC’s main recommendations, aside from ‘open and honest discussion’ and ‘speaking out against shame and stigma,’ seem to revolve around testing and screening for diseases that are already present,” said Bonacci, “which isn’t prevention at all. It might lead to earlier treatment, but it won’t prevent infection, except perhaps in a future partner who may learn of the diagnosis and elect not to have sex with the infected individual. But, then, that goes back to that ‘abstinence’ thing.”
Although Bolan was not available to say why abstinence was not mentioned in the outline of CDC tactics to reduce infection, CDC spokesperson Nikki Mayes qualified her statements later to the Register.
“To effectively reduce the burden of STIs among our nation’s youth, we must use all of the prevention options at our fingertips — no single prevention strategy will completely protect you against all STI,” said Mayes. “Abstinence is the most reliable way to avoid infection with any STI. However, for those who are sexually active, mutual monogamy with an uninfected partner, reduced numbers of partners, condoms, STI testing and vaccination against HPV have all been proven effective to reduce the risk of infection.”
Mayes added that the current STD-prevention approach of the CDC was working, and she pointed to the “near-historic low” incidence of gonorrhea, “and we’re beginning to reverse a decade of increases in the nation’s syphilis rates.”
But back before the current philosophy of “sex education” and STD prevention took root, gonorrhea and syphilis were the only two STDs of significance in America.
Today, there are more than 25 infectious diseases of concern. And, while gonorrhea may be historically low now, in April, scientists were warning that new, antibiotic-resistant versions of the disease are making gains in the population and could make the disease “untreatable by 2015.”
In this scenario and in the current epidemic of STDs, Catholic teaching on sexuality appears to make medical and scientific sense.
It teaches sexuality is a life-giving gift that unifies a husband and a wife and is not shame-based, but, rather, calls youth, as well as older individuals, to a higher sexual fulfillment in chastity and purity (married or not).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman” (2337).
“When educating on the great questions of affectivity and sexuality,” Pope Benedict XVI explained in 2010, “we must avoid showing adolescents and young people ways that tend to devalue these fundamental dimensions of human existence. To this end, the Church calls for everyone to collaborate, especially those who work in schools, to educate the young to a lofty vision of human love and sexuality.”
Celeste McGovern writes from Scotland.