When Do “Believers” Have to Face Facts?

When do facts supercede "belief" in shaping public policy?  And what responsibility do we have as individuals, irrespective of our personal religious faith, to figure out the facts when it comes to laws and policies that affect the lives of others?

These are big questions, and I won’t attempt to answer them here, today, in any "big" way.  However, both questions were raised for me in reading an article by Steve Waldman on Beliefnet entitled: "Why Many Pro-Lifers Oppose Family Planning."

Among three reasons Waldman suggests in answering his own question are that the anti-choice movement was initiated originally by the Catholic Church, which opposes what it refers to as "artificial" contraception; that the Catholic Church and others believe access to contraception encourages more sex, specifically "premarital" sex; and that by funding family planning programs the government is providing support to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that also provide abortion services, thereby "subsidizing abortions."

What bothered me about this article was the following.  In laying out the reasons noted above, Waldman writes: 

Reason #2 – In more recent years, the anti-abortion movement has
been fueled by evangelical Christians who oppose birth control and sex
education largely for different reasons. They believe it encourages
earlier and more premarital sex. They prefer family planning efforts
that emphasize abstinence instead.

The moral problem: even if one accepts the idea that prevalence of
contraception leads to more premarital sex — and I do
— one is faced
with the question: what if contraception leads to more sex but fewer
abortions? Evangelicals have avoided confronting this tradeoff by
rejecting the premise but there is evidence that government financed family planning does reduce abortions.

The bold type above underscores the assertion that Waldman "accepts the idea that the prevalence of contraception leads to more premarital sex."  

Does he get to just decide?  Or does he have to examine the evidence?  Because there is plenty of evidence that knowledge of and access to contraception does not increase the likelihood that someone will engage in sex.  It just ensures two people having sex can protect themselves from pregnancy and infection, depending on the methods used.

In the case of adolescents, for example, I can not find data to support the assertion that the availability of contraception leads to "more" premarital sex.  In fact, there is some research that fully contradicts Waldman’s assertion.  The Guttmacher Institute reports:

The proportion of teens who had ever had sex declined from 49% to
46% among females and from 55% to 46% among males between 1995 and

These teens were clearly growing up in an era when contraceptives were available (at least in theory), and yet they chose to delay sex, refuting Waldman’s point.  At the same time, it is true that the majority of adolescents and young adults do have sex before marriage, but not because of access to contraceptives.  What is not underscored by Waldman is that access to contraceptives and to barrier methods for prevention of infection is critical to ensuring that when they do engage in sex, adolescents and young adults do so responsibly and safely. 

Other research findings completely refute Waldman’s claim.  A review of research studies conducted in the late 1980s and throughout
the 1990s headed by Kristin Moore, Executive Director and Director of
Research at Child Trends of ChildTrends and several others, states:

A major challenge to preventing pregnancies is the
fact that so many adolescents delay seeking contraceptive
services until some months after they have become sexually
active. The delay between first intercourse and obtaining
contraceptive services has been found to average almost one
year in some studies. Procrastination, not thinking that
they could get pregnant or being ambivalent about sex,
contraception and pregnancy, and worrying about
confidentiality are the reasons sexually active adolescents
most often give for not seeking contraceptive services
sooner. The year after the initiation of sexual intercourse
is a time of high risk for unintended pregnancy, and in one
study about one-third of adolescents made their first visit
to a clinic because they suspected that they already were
pregnant. Thus, helping adolescents to plan for effective
contraception (preferably before, but at least soon after
initiating sex) could be an important strategy for reducing
unintended pregnancy.

Again, clearly not access to contraception driving sexual initiation.

To the contrary, access to and effective use of contraception is the operative factor in reducing unintended pregnancies and thereby reducing the overall need for abortion, the very outcomes the common-grounders claim to support.  To suggest that contraception is at fault for sex is to perpetuate the stigmatization of the very prevention services the far right targets with its smoke-screen focus on abortion as the only target.

Implicit also in Waldman’s post is the message that "pre-marital" or non-marital sex (some people don’t get married) is bad, while only "marital sex" is okay.  That may be Waldman’s belief and he is welcome to it, in his personal life.  But it just does not comport with reality and as  a personal value judgment, should not be considered a relevant public policy position.

The majority of people in most countries do not wait until marriage to initiate sexual activity.  In the United States, for example, according to Guttmacher:

Most young people have sex for the first time at about age 17, but do
not marry until their middle or late 20s. This means that young adults
are at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections
(STIs) for nearly a decade.

According to Demographic and Health Survey data, the median age of sexual activity for females in Kenya is 17.8, while the median age of marriage is two years later, 19.8 years of age.  In Namibia, median age of first sexual activity is 18.9, while age at first marriage is 26 years of age.  Similar gaps are evident in other countries. 

You get the picture: Sex before marriage is widespread.  To some degree this is the product of social and economic development and the advancement of women.  We want to delay sex in teens as long as possible, but we also want to ensure that girls in India and Zambia get educated, and that women have equitable opportunities for economic advancement.  As options for women increase, so generally does age-at-marriage.  The older the age at marriage, the wider the gap between sexual initiation and marriage across a population.  While individuals need to be free to choose not to have sex until marriage–or ever for that matter if that is in fact their preference–there is nothing wrong with responsible "pre-marital" or non-marital sexual activity among consenting adults.

The job of government-funded public health programs is to equip people with the best evidence, information and skills to make good decisions and to engage in sexual relationships only when they are fully consensual, and fully protected.

So Waldman needs to own up that his beliefs are not supported by the evidence.  And while he is free to replace evidence with "belief" in his personal life, he should keep it out of arguments advocating public policies.

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  • invalid-0

    The vast majority of Americans have sex before marriage, including those who abstained from sex during their teenage years. Contrary to the public perception that premarital sex is much more common now than in the past, the study shows that even among women who were born in the 1940s, nearly nine in 10 had sex before marriage.


  • jodi-jacobson

    for sharing this important fact as well.

    You are right.  We do have a public debate that assumes that sex before marriage is a "new" phenomenon, another "belief" not borne out by evidence.

    This is a critical point, and one I did not make in this short post, but again underscores the broader point: There is no substance to Waldman’s "belief" that access to contraception leads to more pre-marital sex (or sex of any kind, per se).  It just allows people to enjoy sexual relationships responsibly and safely.

    This is a different question than whether and how we equip people to ensure they do not engage in sexual activity unless it is fully consensual, and practiced responsibly.

    Best wishes, Jodi




  • sayna

    There’s a huge problem with this quote that needs to be straightened out:

    Most young people have sex for the first time at about age 17, but do not marry until their middle or late 20s. This means that young adults are at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) for nearly a decade.

    Marriage is not some magical pregnancy-preventing STI-proof thing! That ring isn’t magic. It’s dishonest and irresponsible to suggest so. You have the exact same chance of getting pregnant with your spouse as you do with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Marriage doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have the ability or desire to have a child. As for STIs, it’s still possible that a spouse may cheat or be born with one. Why would you have an inherently higher risk or STIs when you’re unmarried? I hate how people assume that all premarital sex is irresponsible or promiscuous.

    I think the reason for the huge distance between first-time sex and marriage in the United States (even slightly higher than countries with little/no access to contraception)is partly financial, too. Most people I know can’t afford to move out until they’re in their late twenties. My college-educated thirtysomething-year-old siblings are still having some trouble with housing. Marriage means living together, and a lot of people just can’t afford to do that when they’re young or don’t want to because staying home is cheaper and helps save money for college. Still, people typically want to know if they can live together and have a healthy relationship before they marry. Sex is an important part of a relationship that needs a lot of maintenence and experience to work. You can’t just go from thinking it’s an evil temptation to it being a beautiful act of love immediatly. And even if people do have a lot of sexual partners it doesn’t make them bad or stupid as long as they use protection and are respectful toward their partners.