Scarborough wrongly accused Democrats of seeking to “abolish” abstinence programs, cherry-picked opinion poll on sex education

MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough claimed that Democrats plan to introduce legislation to “abolish” federal abstinence programs. In fact, the proposal he was discussing is bipartisan and would not eliminate funding for abstinence-only education; rather, it would grant states discretion to decide on the most appropriate sex education curriculum. He also cited poll data to claim wide support among teens for abstinence programs, but failed to note that the same polls found that a substantial majority of both teens and parents support sex education that teaches both abstinence and contraception.

On the May 2 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, Scarborough declared: “Democrats are planning to introduce anti-abstinence legislation that would abolish federal abstinence education programs and give the money to safe-sex public health organizations.”

In fact, the proposed legislation, an amendment to the bill reauthorizing the 1996 welfare reforms, has reportedly attracted bipartisan support and would not abolish federal funding for abstinence programs. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), the measure will be introduced by Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI). SIECUS described the expected proposal as follows:

[The Baucus-Chafee amendment] would give states the flexibility to choose to fund the type of abstinence-based program they choose -- be it abstinence-only-until-marriage or a more comprehensive program that includes abstinence as well as discussion of the benefits of contraception for pregnancy and STD prevention, including HIV.

Scarborough also referred to the amendment as “strange” in light of a “new Zogby poll” which found that “92 percent of high school students say they support abstinence programs.” But it appears that the poll Scarborough referred to was neither “new” nor conducted by the polling firm Zogby International.

Much of Scarborough's commentary seems to have originated from an April 19 Washington Times opinion piece by Heritage Foundation senior fellow Robert E. Rector that also cited poll data, allegedly from Zogby, showing “more than 90 percent of teens” believe high schoolers should abstain from sex. But the rest of Rector's piece relied on data from a December 2003 Zogby poll of parents -- not teens. The statistics on teens that Scarborough and Rector referenced appear to come from an annual survey of teens and parents by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which found in a December 2003 study that 92 percent of teens think it is important for teens to “be given a strong message from society that they should not have sex until they are at least out of high school.” Rector correctly cited this statistic in a 2004 report on abstinence education.

Neither Scarborough nor Rector mentioned that the Zogby and National Campaign surveys found a substantial majority of parents and teens favor teaching teens about abstinence and contraception -- an option permitted under the Baucus-Chafee amendment. The Zogby poll found that 75 percent of parents believe that young people should be given information about both abstinence and contraception. The National Campaign 2003 survey also found that 74 percent of parents and 60 percent of teens supported giving teens more information about both abstinence and contraception. In the group's 2004 survey, that number rose to 75 percent of parents and 81 percent of teens.