Mero Moment: Pushing Back Against The Data

Midway through the legislative session, Sutherland Institute made a GRAMA request of the state Department of Health asking it to provide us with data it has collected on the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies for each of Utah’s school districts.

The debate over HB 363, the sex education bill, was raging at the time and part of the debate centered on the effectiveness of abstinence-only and contraception-based curricula. The broad contention is that contraception education actually works better than teaching kids the personal and social skills of how to make good decisions to avoid premarital sex.

There are four school districts in Utah that currently teach abstinence-only: Jordan, Canyons, Provo and Nebo. Those four districts represent 24 percent of Utah students – a pretty good sample of kids. Sutherland asked what we thought was an obvious question: What are the rates of STDs and teen pregnancy in those school districts compared to the other districts teaching contraception?

Evidently, the question alone is problematic. Evidently, all sorts of factors and variables are at work influencing kids to make a decision, whether it’s to avoid premarital sex or to slip on a condom. Evidently, there are so many variables in play that asking the basic question isn’t even worth the time and money it takes the Department of Health to respond.

At least, that’s what we’ve been told.

The truth is that asking that question is important. If asking for the rates of STDs and teen pregnancy by school district isn’t important, why keep track of data at all? If data are tracked on comprehensive sex education approaches, such as the teaching of contraception, why wouldn’t we use the same data to help us judge abstinence-only approaches? And if abstinence-only programs aren’t ultimately a factor in real outcomes for kids, why do we presume that the teaching of contraception is?

The reason some people, including the media, have pushed back on Sutherland’s GRAMA request is because of the answer we received from the Department of Health. As it turns out, the four abstinence-only school districts have lower rates of STDs than the contraception-based school districts – much lower than the statewide average. In fact, the Provo School District, which has a large population of Hispanic students, has the lowest rate in the state. And the preliminary teen pregnancy numbers mirror the STD data.

Critics say the data doesn’t prove anything. But, actually, it does. It proves that these critics will say anything to avoid the truth. The data shows that STD rates are lower among students in Utah school districts where abstinence-only education is taught. Period.

Mary Eberstadt at Stanford University recently wrote, “From time to time, progressives still reply with ‘Correlation doesn’t prove causation.’ But no one really believes them. In fact, it is almost touching, in a quixotic way, how inventive their hunt for other culprits has become. Is it vaccines that explain the rise in emotional and behavioral problems? Are allergies the reason the child is so angry? Do environmental toxins cause anxiety? Who knows? Maybe we should ask the Easter Bunny.”

When only some facts count, none do. The opposition to HB 363 is ideological at heart. And the pushback on the Department of Health data reveals that.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.