WASHINGTON – A group of sex-ed organizations and other advocacy groups are fuming that millions of federal dollars are going to states to cajole them into teaching abstinence programs in schools, despite some evidence that abstinence programs are effective at lowering pregnancy rates.
The 35 groups that gathered Tuesday in Washington as the National Coalition Against Censorship claimed that federal "abstinence-only" restrictions prevented schools from teaching teens about the realities of sex.
"About one-half [of students] didn’t get the information they needed," said Joan Bertin, executive director of the coalition, which included the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and Planned Parenthood.
The group is launching a campaign to thwart reauthorization of the federal funds which were first approved after the landmark 1996 Welfare Reform Act, but are set to expire in 2002.
Public schools have received an estimated $100 million a year to teach sex education that, according to the language in the law, encourages abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage. And there is now some evidence that encouraging abstinence can have the desired effect.
Colorado's Delta County had one of the state's highest teenage pregnancy rates when it adopted a sexual abstinence campaign six years ago. Now the campaign's gaining respect as that rate drops.
For many years, nearly one in 10 babies in the county had been born to a teenage mother, about twice the state average. But in 1995, a yellow banner was strung across one of Delta County's busiest streets reading simply "Save Sex."
Now Delta's rate is approaching the state average of 4.3 percent. Rates in other counties have also declined, but not as drastically as they have in Delta.
"I am for abstinence. It's been proven to work. I applaud what Delta is doing," Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said. But Owens added that "it doesn't mean we shouldn't provide other means of birth control for those who make another choice."
'A Form of Religious Indoctrination'
Barry W. Lynn of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,says the funding "violates the spirit of the separation of church and state," as he says abstinence education is a form of religious indoctrination put forth by the "religious right."
"Parents should at least be aware that their children are being indoctrinated into views that they may not believe themselves," he said.
The coalition argues that students should not only be taught abstinence, but prevention, beginning as early as middle school. They say that the "just say no approach" doesn’t work and that teachers are scared to teach anything other than "abstinence-only" in light of the federal funding requirements.
But Mike Long, a former public school teacher who supports the funding and author of the book, Everyone is NOT Doing It, says "abstinence-only" is a tag that is often placed on any program that doesn’t "demonstrate the use of a condom and hand them out."
He said the groups in the coalition "love that term because they want to make parents think that we’re just going into classrooms preaching to kids, lecturing to kids and pointing a finger in their faces — but we’re not."
A program he is affiliated with is not "abstinence-only," he says, but it encourages abstinence in the face of sexually transmitted diseases, especially those that aren’t avoided by using condoms, such as human papilloma virus (HPV).
HPV affects about 55 million people a year and cannot be avoided entirely by the use of latex condoms, according to the National Institute for Infectious and Allergic Diseases. Certain strains of HPVs are responsible for genital warts and cervical cancer in women.
Heather Cirmo of the Family Research Center said her organization does believe in "abstinence-only" programs and for good reason: "It’s the healthiest way of living," she says.
As for the "religious indoctrination" allegation, Cirmo shot back "to say that abstinence should not be taught in schools just because all of the major religions promote no sex before marriage is ridiculous. Just because morality is taught in religion doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught in the schools."
'How to Be Sexual Without Intercourse'
Judy Blume also spoke for the coalition. Blume is the author of numerous children’s books that not only have addressed the issues of adolescent sexuality over the last 20 years, but have been the subject of censorship in schools across the country because of their often graphic language and subject matter.
She said that if she and her classmates in the 1950s had been given "sexuality education," they might have not married so young or divorced so regularly. She suggested that students ought to be allowed to talk about masturbation and "how to be sexual without intercourse."
Furthermore, the National Association of Education, another member of the coalition, says there is no mandate for abstinence-only education.
"On the contrary, more than 80 percent of parents want the schools to discuss condoms and other forms of birth control," said spokesman Jerry Newberry, citing a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
According to a spokesman for the Office of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., abstinence education funding will likely be reauthorized when it comes up for a vote next year.