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Is Abstinence-only Enough While Diseases Rise?

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- With sexually transmitted diseases on the rise in Utah, several lawmakers want the state to spend $350,000 to inform the public that gonorrhea and chlamydia can be prevented.

Between 2000 and 2006, gonorrhea cases increased to 888 from 231, while chlamydia cases more than doubled to 5,092. Most involve women under 25.

But with abstinence-only education in public schools mandated by state law, some lawmakers fear Utah is doing little more than hoping the problem will go away.

"I do think that there is a little bit of a head-in-the-sand mentality when it comes to our current sex education policy," said Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City.

"I would hope that even though people have some very strong moral feelings about sex education that we can at least look at what's happening around us, and look at the studies, and see that abstinence-only may not work," he said.

McCoy points to a study by Mathematica Policy Research, a Princeton, N.J.-based research institute, which looked at the effectiveness of four abstinence-only programs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The study found the programs had no effect on the sexual abstinence of young people. It also found that those people were no more likely to have unprotected sex than those who didn't participate in the program.

Many conservative lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature oppose educating young people about condoms because they believe it will lead to sexual promiscuity.

Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake City, disagrees with that stance but said trying to change state law on abstinence-only education would be "dead on arrival."

He and others want the Legislature to spend money to tell people that sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented and treated.

"This is not necessarily aimed at kids in classrooms, although I'm sure some of the information would get to them," Riesen said. "There's the feeling that if you educate kids about sex, they're going to go out and have sex. ... I don't want to cross that bridge right now."

He said allowing the Utah Department of Health to take the lead might be more effective.

The department emphasizes abstinence until marriage and faithfulness to a partner -- "and condom use if you can't do any of the above," said Jennifer Brown, director of the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control. "That's what we would like our message to be."

It's unclear the odds of Riesen's bill passing the Legislature in 2008.

At a committee meeting, Republicans said they wanted more information about what role schools play in sex education before they could vote for it. They also peppered Riesen and health officials with questions about the increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

"The facts are scary," Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said. "We seem like we refuse to tell ourselves we're becoming more immoral, but that's what it's all about."

On Tuesday, Brown said lawmakers' questions aren't difficult to answer.

"The obvious reason is that individuals are having unprotected sex. That part we know," she said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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