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Abstinence Only Education

“The federal government has every intention of defying federal law and continuing to use taxpayer dollars to fund programs that are overtly religious—Christian—in nature. Not only do these programs make reference to Christianity, they include anti-abortion messages, gender biases, particularly as they relate to controlling young women’s behaviors, and completely exclude LGBTQ youth.?
Abstinence Only Education

By Eleanor Bader

Dr. Kimber Haddix McKay, an anthropologist who teaches Human Sexuality at the University of Montana-Missoula, thought it would be a good idea to expose her students to those who promote sexual abstinence until marriage. “Since Montana accepts federal money for abstinence education, I thought I’d show the students what this means and who is involved in the state’s campaigns,? she says. She invited representatives from Sexual Abstinence and Family Education (SAFE) to address the 250 undergraduates enrolled in the course.

The content of the talk outraged McKay and shocked and confused her students. “They said things like condoms aren’t effective against STDs and explicitly predicted that those who have premarital sex will have unhappy marriages because people feel insecure when their partners have had previous sexual experiences,? McKay recalls. The presenters also cited a specious 2003 study, conducted by the right- wing Heritage Foundation, that purportedly found that sexually active teens are more likely to be depressed or suicidal than their celibate peers.

While McKay says that she tried to do “damage control? after the presentation, bringing in speakers from the campus health center and local women’s clinic, she worries that some of her students may have had trouble deciphering the conflicting messages. Raquel Castel- lanos, executive director of the Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula, was one of the people McKay solicited to rebut SAFE. “In Montana, like many other states, each school district decides what will be taught. This means that a town can say, ‘We want comprehensive sex ed.’ But it’s hit-and-miss whether the kids will get educated. In one place, the teacher told students that condoms were 50-60 percent ineffective in preventing pregnancy. In another school, the kids were told that condoms don’t work on teenagers. It’s pretty rare for rural kids to get comprehensive sex ed. The abstinence people are so well-funded that they can travel all over the state. We have nothing to counter the kind of federal money that is pouring in.?

Indeed. Since 1998, more than $1 billion has been spent on abstinence only programs, a 3,000 percent increase. Three funding streams channel revenue to all 50 states. What’s more, the grants have gone not only to school districts, but also to hundreds of explicitly anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Centers, Catholic Diocese, and groups affiliated with the Baptist Church, Disciples of Christ, and evangelical Christian mega- churches.

“Bush is funding his base and creating an industry and advocates to do recruitment,? says Adrienne Verrilli, Communications Director at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States [SIECUS]. “It’s part of a broad strategy to start moving federal dollars into the evangelical community. It’s a neoconserva- tive’s dream come true.?

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America calls the funding of abstinence programs “one of the religious right’s greatest victories.? PPFA has issued chilling warnings about the program’s far-reaching national impact, pointing out that stepped-up funding has meant that kids throughout the country hear three consistent messages:

* that sexual activity between unmarried people has negative physical and psychological
* that all people are expected to live in monogamous heterosexual marriages
* that bearing children out of wedlock hurts child, parent, and

Some programs go even further. Peggy Papsdorf, project coordinator for Plain Truth for Washington, a group that promotes comprehensive sex education in public schools, witnessed a lecture by Pam Stenzel, a former Crisis Pregnancy counselor turned abstinence instructor. According to Papsdorf, Stenzel told a class of eighth graders that:

* no one has ever had sex with more than one partner without paying a price
* birth control pills make you ten times more susceptible to death
* abortion causes long-term psychological damage
* condoms are unsafe
* boys don’t get hurt by premarital sex while girls suffer for life
* large numbers of 18 to 20-year- old women are having radical hysterectomies because of cervical cancer caused by early sexual activity

Stenzel’s message, while extreme, is far from atypical. It has dire consequences. Advocates for Youth, a progressive Washington, DC-based policy group, estimates that approximately 45.6 percent of high school and 79.5 percent of college students are sexually active. According to “Tracking Hidden Epidemics: Trends in STDs in the United States,? a report compiled by the Centers for Disease Control in 2000, “Teens are at high behavioral risk for acquiring most STDs. Teenagers and young adults are more likely than other age groups to have multiple sexual partners, to engage in unprotected sex, and for young women, to choose sexual partners older than themselves.? In addition, the U.S. continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world; between 800,000 and 900,000 adolescents 19 or younger get pregnant annually.

CDC statisticians estimate that nearly four million teens will get an STD this year: Chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, human papilloma virus, syphilis, trichimoniasis or HIV. Half of the country’s new HIV cases occur among people under age 25 and Chlamydia has become the most commonly reported infection. Since 2000, says Raquel Castellanos, Montana has seen a 58 percent increase in this STD. “Although we do not have scientific research which links the sharp rise in Chlamydia to abstinence-only education, I believe it’s no coincidence that in the same period in which over $1 million has poured in for education that dismisses the effectiveness of condoms, that we are seeing this exponential rise in Chlamydia among youth.?

Montana is not the only state in which STDs are surging. The CDC estimates that nearly one-quarter of women under 24 will contract Chlamydia. In 1999, 13 percent of female adolescents entering juvenile detention facilities tested positive for it; 3.3 percent of young women joining the National Job Training Program in 2001 had gonorrhea. “Many STDs are silent,? says Castellanos. “We catch them when we do an abortion or when a woman comes in for her annual exam.?

For Adrienne Verrilli of SIECUS, the possibility that a teen will forego medical visits because she is afraid to disclose sexual activity is appalling. “This is a huge problem,? she says. “Students are not encouraged to go to the doctor. They are told to adopt secondary virginity as a solution, to act like the sex they already had didn’t happen. A lot of women get massive infections. By not encouraging them to go for testing, by not recommending condoms, they are promoting a harmful religious agenda. It’s often not overt but the religious message still wiggles into the curricula.?

Edward Mechmann, an attorney working in the Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York, believes that abstinence until marriage is the right message for schools to be teaching. Nonetheless, like Verrilli, he is concerned about the possible blurring of church-state separation. “It is not right for public money to go for sectarian activity,? he says. “The government should not be involved in funding religion.?

Prior to 1996, he continues, the Archdiocese did not receive government money for Family Life Education. “We don’t usually get involved in trying to get government grants because there are always strings attached,? he says. Then, in 1997, the New York State Health Department contacted the Archdiocese and delineated specifics about running abstinence only programs. “They wanted someone to cover the geographic areas with the most at-risk people,? Mech- mann reports. “The Health Department told us the zip codes they wanted us to hit. The ultimate determinant was that there was money for a program that was working in some areas, so we said ‘Let’s give it a try.’?

The Archdiocesan Drug Abuse Prevention Program, ADAP, received $1.5 million to run abstinence programs from 1998-2003; a provisional extension for the 2004-2005 academic year was later issued. The grant has been used to provide abstinence education to both parochial school students and those attending after-school or youth programs housed in Catholic facilities. “The programs we’re doing are secular, but our theology is to teach people to preserve sex until marriage,? Mechmann says. “It’s a congruence of agenda between the religious and the secular.?

This congruence unsettles civil libertarians, but to date they have had little success in stemming the abstinence tide. Julie Sternberg of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project says that the Supreme Court has sanctioned the funding of religious organizations, but requires that monies be used exclusively for secular purposes. “Taxpayer dollars may not go to the promotion of religion,? she says. “If a group is using taxpayer dollars, those dollars may not be used to advance religion in any way.?

This theory was tested in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 2002 when the ACLU heard that the Community Abstinence Network had gone into a seventh grade classroom with a video that included extensive references to God. Parents took action, Sternberg says, protesting to the Department of Health and superintendent of schools. With assistance from the Reproductive Freedom Project, corrective action was taken and the offending video was removed from the classroom. In addition, a teacher who had told students that abortion was murder was forced to clarify that under the law abortion is a legal procedure. A similar outcome was achieved in Louisiana, where federal money had been used to transport public school kids to anti-abortion protests, as well as to purchase Bibles and to stage religious plays.

Despite these victories, lawyers say that it is difficult to sue the feds for violating the separation of church and state. A paper trail that connects government dollars to overtly religious activity needs to be established, says Sternberg. The ACLU is investigating, “putting out brush fires in local instances,? and trying to determine if “pervasively sectarian religious groups? are being funded in violation of the law.

For its part, the Department of Health and Human Services is the government entity charged with overseeing that religious groups abide by strictures that prohibit them from preaching or proselytizing. “Guidance to Faith Based and Community Organizations on Partnering with the Federal Government,? a booklet published by the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiates in 2002, offers advice: “Faith based organizations that receive direct government funds should take steps to separate, in time and location, their inherently religious activities from the government funded services they offer.? Failure to comply, the pamphlet warns, can lead to the cessation of funding.

But are groups monitored to insure compliance? Although repeated calls and e-mails to HHS to ask this question went unanswered, Adrienne Verrilli of SIECUS believes the answer is an emphatic no. “The federal government has every intention of defying federal law and continuing to use taxpayer dollars to fund programs that are overtly religious—Christian—in nature. Not only do these programs make reference to Christianity, they include anti-abortion messages, gender biases, particularly as they relate to controlling young women’s behaviors, and completely exclude LGBTQ youth.?

If Verrilli is right, why has community response been so muted? “When people hear that their kids are getting abstinence education, they assume that means abstinence plus, not abstinence only,? says David Seldin, Communications Director of NARAL. “People think it’s a good idea, generally, to teach kids that they can say no and postpone sexual activity until they are a bit older. But the reality of human life for the past several thousand years has been that that message does not translate into abstinent behavior. Most parents assume that young people are getting more than they got in school, when in fact they are often getting less. The issue remains under the radar screen. This so flies in the face of common sense it is hard for people to believe it’s happening.?

Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women’s Law Center, says that in addition to church-state issues, in order to sue you have to identify a harm that has been promulgated. “We are looking for state-based laws that would permit a lawsuit to challenge funding to faith based organizations and Crisis Pregnancy Centers that provide inaccurate information,? Stone says. Yet she acknowledges numerous potential obstacles. “If a kid is taught that condoms don’t work and she gets an STD or becomes pregnant, who do you sue? Is it the entity that gave the money to the community-based organization or the group that taught the class or both? Then there’s the issue of causation. Did she get pregnant because of the abstinence-only lecture or because she had sex??

Katie, a young woman who told her story to NARAL, confronted this issue head-on when, as a seventh grader, the reigning Miss America, Heather Whitestone, spoke to her junior high school. “She stood on a platform in a gymnasium full of seventh and eighth graders, holding a tennis racket and asked for a volunteer,? Katie wrote. “She handed the young boy who came on stage a fistful of b-b’s, then instructed him to throw them to her as she tried to hit them back with a tennis racket. ‘This,’ she told the youth, ‘is how condoms work.’ A couple of months later the first girl got pregnant. The second girl got pregnant a few weeks later…. There didn’t seem to be any point in going through the humiliation of buying condoms. We’d been told again and again that they didn’t work.?

Stories like Katie’s don’t faze Leslee Unruh, president and founder of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a national network that received $2.7 million in government funds in 2002. According to its website, the Clearinghouse exists to “promote the appreciation for and the practice of sexual abstinence [purity] until marriage.?

“Tax dollars have been going to fund programs that give out latex, birth control pills, or devices for years,? Unruh says. “We don’t think this helps and demand equal time.? Boasting 5,000 trained abstinence educators, the Clearinghouse is resolute, bolstered by the Bush administration’s commitment to increase funding for abstinence education. “Lots of people are working together and sharing information,? Unruh says. “But the programs are in their infancy. We need to let them grow.?

Such growth—and the concomitant spread of misinformation and hoary notions about gender roles and heterosexual privilege—terrifies those who advocate comprehensive programs. “I’m afraid we are going to raise a generation of kids who have little understanding of sex and sexuality,? admits Adrienne Verrilli of SIECUS.

Already, Planned Parenthood staffers are collecting anecdotes attesting to the spread of ignorance: a male student in California asked his teacher where his cervix was; a female wondered if she could become pregnant from oral sex. “It’s so dangerous,? Verrilli adds. “Rights are so hard to get and so easy to take away.?

Eleanor J. Bader is the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

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