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Thursday, August 18, 2005

The World Turned Upside Down

Tuesday Opinion Journal pointed to this site and this quote:
No method of contraception or disease prevention is effective when practiced incorrectly or inconsistently. A 1988 National Survey of Family Growth found abstinence to have a contraceptive failure rate of 26% when not practiced consistently. So, in abstinence, as in condom use, consistency is key.
Hmmm, I said to myself, I had no idea that refraining from sex could result in pregnancy 26% of the time.

That could explain some of those babies apparently conceived while the husband sailor was deployed for several months on the ships I was on while waiting wife remained behind. I was stunned. Think, I thought, of all the divorces caused by said pregnancies and the hurtful allegations of unfaithfulness made by said husband sailors to said waiting wives. Who knew? I began to look at "abstinence education" in a whole new way.

Today, however, the world returned to normal. My sea monkeys, perhaps sensing my changing mood, began to frolic again. It turns out that sex educators define "abstinence" a little differently than the rest of the human race:
We know a professor of great renown, blogger Eugene Volokh, and he tracked down the misunderstanding that gave rise to this boner:
Here's what's really going on: (1) a confusing term being used by public health scholars, which (2) likely led to confusion on the part of the person writing the Web page, which (3) translates into false claims being passed along to the public. If you look at abstracts of the 1988 Survey, you find that 26% is the failure rate for "periodic abstinence," which means "rhythm and natural family planning."

That's right: 26% is the failure rate for the rhythm method, not for deliberate decisions to abstain. Public health scholars apparently refer to the rhythm method and similar practices as "periodic abstinence," which is literally accurate, but potentially confusing to nonexperts, since it's close to a term ("abstinence") that means something quite different in lay discussion. The Web page author seemed to have been confused, interpreting "periodic abstinence" simply as "inconsistently practiced abstinence," and thus labeling it simply as "abstinence." And readers will therefore be getting false information: "Abstinence" in lay discussion generally refers to a deliberate decision not to have sex at all--rather than just to a decision to have sex only on one's presumably less fertile days--so people will read the claim as pointing to the dangers of abstinence, rather than the dangers of the rhythm method.
Ah! Enlightenment. So while the husband sailors were at sea, the waiting wives were working on their rhythm. Note to sailors: Do not let your wives take up percussion instruments or rhythmic dancing. Apparently this can possibly lead to a 26% failure rate in abstinence.

Lord knows what harm studying the periodic table could lead to.
Gratuitous Pelican Photo

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