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It has been said that chance favors the prepared mind. If so, then there are those who would prefer America's young people had no chance at all.

The ability to make informed, healthy choices about one's sexuality is an essential life skill - like learning to read, or to vote. As with these and other life skills, one of the best ways to reach people early and most effectively is through public schools.Sex education is hardly a radical concept for most Americans. According to a 1994 study on sexuality education curricula commissioned by the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), about 85 percent of American adults support sexuality education in public schools, while 73 percent support making information and contraceptives available through health centers in schools.

The AEI study is the most comprehensive and up-to-date survey of existing sexuality education programs in the United States.

But far-right opponents of comprehensive sexual education programs reject solid evidence of their effectiveness at combating teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS.

Worse, they falsely claim that these programs encourage teens to engage in sexual intercourse earlier and more frequently than they would have done otherwise. There simply is no evidence for this claim.

Reality-based sexuality education, where properly implemented, has been shown to encourage responsible behavior among teens - especially when young people receive education prior to initiating intercourse.

"Reducing the Risk" a curriculum cited in the AEI study, is a case in point. Teens who took the program were more likely to delay initiation of sexual intercourse, had higher levels of knowledge and parent-child communication, and when they did initiate intercourse, had lower levels of unprotected intercourse - up to 40 percent lower.

Similarly, school-linked family planning clinics have been shown to reduce adolescent pregnancy when coupled with counseling and education. The AEI review noted the success of the Self Center in Baltimore. In 1991, the center registered a 26 percent decrease in pregnancy rates for students who were exposed to the program for two years or more.

In England, Wales, France, and the Netherlands, national policy encourages reality-based sexuality education in schools, and young people have confidential access to contraception.

Yet according to studies conducted in 1985 and 1993, their rates of teen sexual activity are no higher than those of American teens, and their rates of teenage pregnancy, childbearing and abortion are two to seven times lower.

One of the most disturbing trends in public education is the mass marketing of sectarian sexuality education curricula by the far right. "Sex Respect," "Facing Reality," "Teen Aid" and other commercial curricula packages with a sectarian bias censor pregnancy and AIDS prevention information and equate all sexual activity outside of marriage with guilt and sin.

There was never a time when censorship and distortion of truth would be accepted as responsible education. In the age of AIDS, it's a deadly form of child abuse.