Abstinence Message Urged As UK Sexual Disease Rate Soars

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

London (CNSNews.com) - A dramatic rise in the cases of sexually-transmitted diseases in Britain, especially among young girls, fueled a debate Friday about the respective merits of encouraging abstinence and "safe sex" practices.

Government figures released Friday put diagnoses at their highest level in 10 years. Since 1995, cases of genital chlamydia have risen by 77 percent, gonorrhea by 57 percent and syphilis by 56 percent.

"A worrying trend is emerging from these figures," said Dr. Kevin Fenton of the Public Health Laboratory Service.

Worst hit, he said, were young women suffering from gonorrhea and chlamydia, and homosexual and bisexual men, "in whom syphilis infections doubled between 1998 and 1999."

The long-term effects of such infections can be severe, including infertility or ectopic pregnancies, where a fertilized egg implants itself outside the uterus. Syphilis can result in pregnancies ending in miscarriage or stillbirth.

Last August, national health service figures showed a significant increase in the number of under-16s being treated for sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), including children as young as 11.

While the STD figures in the UK are alarming, so are those of teenage pregnancies, about half of which end in abortion.

Dr. Liam Fox, the Conservative Party's health spokesman, said in response to the new statistics that it was evident "major changes are required in sexual behavior, with a need for more barrier contraception."

Instead, he said, the government earlier this week sent entirely the wrong message by announcing it will from January 1 make the "morning after pill" available over the counter from pharmacies.

Experts believe today's youth have become complacent about the risks of unprotected sex, unlike the 1980s teenage generation who grew up bombarded by the "safe sex" message.

But others argue that a stronger abstinence message is needed, rather than the government's twin strategy of making contraceptives - including the morning-after pill - more easily available and providing more explicit sex education at a younger age.

Dr. Trevor Stammers, a tutor at St George's Medical School in London, wrote in the British Medical Journal Friday that it was time for British doctors to advise adolescents not to have sex.

Research showed that early intercourse carried greater health risks and often led to subsequent regret.

He noted that in the United States, where teenage pregnancy rates are falling, medical journals regularly publish articles encouraging health workers to recommend abstinence and telling them how to do so most effectively.

Stammers acknowledged that abstinence runs against the tide of peer pressure, but said parents could make a vital difference in this area.

"Doctors promoting abstinence for teenagers should encourage parents to talk with their children about sex and be able to recommend resources to help them to do so," he said.

He pointed to the situation in the Netherlands - generally regarded as much healthier than in Britain - and said although school sex education there is usually cited as the reason for this, what may contribute equally is the fact Dutch parents "communicate much more with their children about sex."

Teenagers should be made to realize there is no such thing as casual sex, Stammers argued. "It may be casual in intent but never in its consequences."

They should be encouraged to think about the fact that the discipline of abstinence in teenage years will prepare them for a healthier and more fulfilling sex life later.

Giving a contrary view, Dr. Roger Ingham of the University of Southampton said young people want more open and earlier sex education and more suitable health services.

"What rights have professionals to deny young people the opportunity to form relationships and express their feelings safely in ways that they choose to?"

Advising youths not to have sex runs the risk that they will become even more alienated from adults and be less likely to use the services available," Ingham said.

He was critical of Stammers, who is a trustee of a pro-family and pro-life organization, Family and Youth Concern.

"Sexual health experts who attempt to promulgate their own personal and moral values under the guise of scientifically-based medical opinion do not help this work."

Peer pressure

One thing Stammers and Ingham did agree on was the key role peer pressure plays in teenage sexual activity. Virginity is considered highly unfashionable.

Yet only 17 percent of children aged 13-15 participating in a recent confidential survey in England said they were sexually active. This is considerably fewer than the one-quarter or more generally quoted by the government.

The figures contradicted the assumption of across-the-board teenage promiscuity often cited by those lobbying to make contraception more easily available.

Valerie Riches, the director of Family and Youth Concern, said it was wrong to perpetuate the view that "everyone's doing it."