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Is Abstinence Really Abstinence? Why Definitions Matter

Those who control the vocabulary win the argument. If strategic words can be redefined, arguments become meaningless. Take the word ‘conception’ for example. Until recently, conception referred to the moment when a baby is ‘conceived.’ This would define conception in terms of the egg’s fertilization by the sperm, initiating the the process of development. No longer–at least among many medical professionals and interest groups. Now, conception has been redefined as a state which requires the embryo’s successful implantation in the uterine wall. This shift allows birth-control advocates to package a drug like the “morning after pill” as a contraceptive, when it actually prevents a fertilized egg from being successfully implanted in the womb. Indeed, such drugs and mechanisms operate by an abortifacient effect, and should be understood as early abortions. Using the same slippery vocabulary, some reseachers now refer to human ‘pre-embryos,’ which are just embryos in the earliest stages of development. This explains why some scientists and politicians pushing for human embryonic stem cell research protest the use of the term ‘embryo’ in the first place. We must face the reality that the term ‘conception’ has been redefined by those who would want to deny full human dignity at the earliest stages of human development.

Now, the same is the case with the term “abstinence”–at least when it comes to sex. Parents in Fairfax County, Virginia discovered this recently when the local school board considered the adoption of sex education pamphlets for 10th graders. According to The Washington Post, one of the proposed brochures was opposed by parents, who criticized the document for stating that sexual abstinence “can range from no sexual touching at all to everything except intercourse.” The paper’s report indicated that the school board nixed one pamphlet and edited another. Still, some parents were unsatisfied, arguing that the changes do not go far enough. At least one school board member shared their dissatisfaction, suggesting that the pamphlet’s approach to abstinence portrayed teenagers who do not have sex as “on the other side of normal and popular.” Keep this in mind when you are assured that your local schools teach sexual abstinence. Abstinence as defined by whom?