Abstinence, Birth Control, and the Difference between Theory and Practice

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about the idea that abstinence is a 100% effective method of birth control… and what, exactly, is wrong with that idea. It’s titled Abstinence, Birth Control, and the Difference between Theory and Practice, and here’s the teaser:

So how effective — really — is abstinence as a birth control method?

Bristol Palin, Sarah Palin’s famously “unmarried and pregnant at 17 and an unmarried mother at 18” daughter, recently went on a tour of the TV talk shows, advocating — in an irony so massive I feel puny standing next to it — abstinence for teenagers.

And one of the arguments she made — with her baby on her lap — was that abstinence is the only 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy.

Now, if Bristol Palin, or anyone else, had gone on the TV talk show circuit arguing that, say, birth control pills were the only 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy — and they’d done so with their unplanned baby on their lap — they’d have been laughed off the stage. But people tend to see abstinence as different. People — and not just right-wing ideologues — tend to see a failure of abstinence as a failure of the people practicing it… not as a failure of the method.

So today, I want to talk about how we do — and do not — measure the effectiveness of any given method of birth control.

To find out how the effectiveness of birth control is usually measured — and to ask why this theory doesn’t get applied to abstinence as well — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy! (And if you’re inspired to comment on this piece on this blog, please consider cross- posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog as well. They like comments there, too.)

Abstinence, Birth Control, and the Difference between Theory and Practice

8 thoughts on “Abstinence, Birth Control, and the Difference between Theory and Practice

  1. 1

    I want to know what pressure was applied to Bristol Palin to get her to go on an abstinence-only promotion tour, given that just a few months ago she was saying that it was unrealistic.

  2. 3

    I remember in The Audacity of Hope, Obama said something along the lines of being prepared to fund any sex-education programme that had a good track record of preventing unplanned pregnancy, and that if there were abstinence programmes that had a such a record he’d be happy to fund them. And I remember thinking, “Clever. Very clever.”
    Because basically he’s saying he won’t be funding abstinence programmes (given that, as you say, they’re well known for having very high failure rates), but he’s putting it in such a way that no-one supporting such programmes could possibly object without completely undermining their own claims.
    That is a very intelligent President you have there.

  3. 4

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for talking sense! A lot of people seem to prefer young women to be raising surprise babies than to confront the possibility of them having sex. They need to grow up.

  4. 5

    Another excellent post. Like Jen R, I have to wonder if Bristol is being pressured into this by her ambitious mother. Don’t she and her mother realize that Bristol is being used, if not abused, by the media? Bristol’s opinion is not sought because of her wisdom; it’s not even being sought because of her experience – it’s being sought because of her mother’s notoriety. The media is making laughing stocks out of Sarah and Bristol. Sarah is ambitious enough to figure she can parlay that into political capital. I suspect that Bristol is just naive, and, perhaps, being pushed around by her mother.

  5. 6

    I have seen a few of the clips from Bristol Palin’s abstinence tour and she sounds like an automatron. I think she was forced to go on this talk show tour because of the comment she made about abstinence being unrealistic. Her mother must have been fuming when she saw that, thus Bristol’s new job of advocating abstinence because she fucked up when she was on a talk show without the brainwashing and persuasive coaching of her mother.

  6. 7

    Wait just a second. I don’t know a lot about this particular gossip debacle, but did you equate “unmarried pregnancy” with “unplanned pregnancy?” The two are not the same, even though they go hand in hand on not uncommon occasions.

  7. 8

    Heh. As I pointed out to my wife, abstinence is only effective birth control until you want to have sex. Then it’s useless. And teenage hormones? They’re going to win eventually.

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