Federal Law Mandates ‘Abstinence-Only’ Sex Ed

Fundamentalists Pushed Stealth Legislation

By Priscilla Pardini

A year and a half after federal legislation allocating $250 million for abstinence-only sexuality education, the vast majority of Americans know little, if anything, about the law. And they know even less about its potentially disastrous effects.

The legislation throws the full weight of the federal government behind programs that teach that abstinence is the “only certain way” to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, that the expected standard of human sexual activity is “a monogamous relationship within the context of marriage,” and that sex outside of marriage is likely to be “psychologically and physically harmful.” States agreeing to teach abstinence can receive annual allocations of $78,526 to $4.9 million over the next five years.

Not that there’s anything wrong with abstinence. In fact, if there is anything everyone agrees on when it comes to the highly charged subject of sex education, it is that abstinence is an appropriate choice for teenagers.

There’s just one problem — most adolescents begin having intercourse in their mid-to-late teens, roughly eight years before they marry.

“It’s not realistic to assume all teens are going to remain abstinent,” said Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Bureau of Health. “And withholding information will not make them abstinent.”

This newest controversy swirling around sexuality education in schools centers around the use of two main approaches:

  • Abstinence-only curricula that teach only about abstinence. Critics say some of the most popular of these programs rely on scare tactics to get their message across and sometimes include inadequate and inaccurate medical information.
  • Comprehensive sexuality curricula that focus on abstinence but also provide teenagers with information on pregnancy, contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Critics say such curricula increase teen sexual activity, although studies show otherwise.

As a physician and public health officer, Mills’ concern about abstinence-only sex-ed programs runs deep. She points out that while reducing teen pregnancy and delaying the onset of sexual intercourse are “excellent public health goals,” it is the threat of HIV and AIDS — a leading cause of death in young adults — that makes it even more critical to “give our kids the information they need to protect themselves.” And with half of those who acquire HIV doing so before they reach the age of 25, Mills says it is particularly important that teenagers receive comprehensive sexuality education before graduating from high school. “In the case of HIV,” she added, “withholding information can be harmful, even deadly.”

According to Mills, that means delivering an abstinence message along with information on pregnancy, contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted disease. She said research has repeatedly shown that comprehensive family life education programs reduce teen pregnancy rates and delay the age at which teens first engage in sexual intercourse.

Nevertheless, programs paid for with the new federal funds must, according to law, focus “exclusively” on abstinence. That means they cannot deal with the very topics Mills and other public health officials espouse. (See the interview with Joycelyn Elders that accompanies this article.)

The federal appropriation — which balloons to $437.5 million when combined with matching state funds — is the result of a little-publicized and never-debated provision of Public Law 104-193, the welfare reform law signed into law by President Clinton in August 1996. The bill represents a big victory for its supporters — members of the religious right — who have been battling sex education in public schools for some 30 years.

The legislation, which was never the subject of public hearings or congressional debate, “took us completely by surprise,” said Daniel Daley, director of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a non-profit national organization that promotes comprehensive sexuality education. He said the provision was added to the legislation late in the process, when changes generally are limited to technical revisions and corrections. “An environment was created to make sure no one knew this was happening unless you were inside the loop — unless you were part of the Heritage Foundation or the Christian Coalition.”

The bill, which does not require that funded programs be evaluated, was made even more powerful when it was granted entitlement status during a House-Senate conference. That means the legislation is not subject to Congress’ annual appropriations process and instead automatically qualifies for funding in each year of the funding period.

Attacks on Sex Ed

The abstinence-only movement began in the late 1980s in response to public support for sexuality education in public schools. (See the related article, “The History of Sexuality Education.” ) It is the latest vehicle used by the religious right in its effort to impose a broad, conservative agenda on U.S. public schools. Through a series of initiatives promoting school prayer, vouchers, creationism, censorship, and parental rights, conservatives have sought to impose a culture that embraces memorization and obedience at the expense of investigation, problem-solving and independent thought. The ultimate goal: to undermine the separation of church and state as it relates to public education and to bring a fundamentalist, Christian perspective to publicly-funded, secular schools.

In order to accomplish their goals, members of the religious right in the late 1980s began campaigning for — and winning — seats on local school boards across the country. The effect on sex ed has been significant. Since 1992, SIECUS’ Community Advocacy Project has tracked more than 500 local controversies in 50 states around the issue of sexuality education. The following examples illustrate a number of current trends:

  • School board members in Bunn, NC ordered three chapters removed from a ninth-grade health textbook because the material did not adhere to state law mandating abstinence-only sexuality education. The chapters, covering AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, marriage and parenting, and contraception, were literally sliced out of the books and thrown away.
  • In September 1996, by a vote of 7-2, school board members in Sheboygan, WI, virtually eliminated a sexuality education program for pupils in kindergarten through grade 3 that focused on the family and human anatomy despite strong support for the program by the district’s Human Growth and Development Advisory Committee.
  • A group of parents forced the Penn-Harris-Madison School District in South Bend, IN, to institute an “opt-in” policy requiring parents to provide explicit, written permission before their children could be enrolled in sex education classes. A growing trend, this move seeks to replace the standard, more workable “opt-out” policy, in which parents who object to the classes must request that their children be excused from attendance.
  • In March 1994, 16 months after the religious right achieved a majority on the Vista, CA, Unified School Board, board members voted to replace a comprehensive sex-ed program with “Sex Respect: The Option of True Sexual Freedom,” a fear-based, abstinence-only curriculum. When the board’s attorney warned that “Sex Respect” might not meet state guidelines because it included misleading and inaccurate information, was racially biased, and supported specific religious beliefs, board members directed a new attorney to suggest modifications to the curriculum that would bring it into compliance with state law.

Abstinence-Only Vs. Comprehensive Sex Ed

Although the controversy over sexuality education is being played out in a number of ways, the abstinence-only movement is clearly having the biggest impact. Abstinence-only programs are reportedly used in about 25% of the nation’s roughly 16,000 school districts. Among the most popular: “Sex Respect.” (See the related story on Sex Respect.)

Based on fundamentalist Christian beliefs, they teach that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. The programs rely on fear tactics that, in effect, tell adolescents they are putting their lives at risk if they engage in premarital sex. “They tell kids they’re going to go blind, get a disease, never be able to get pregnant, and ultimately die,” said Monica Rodriguez, SIECUS’ director of education. “That’s it. That’s how they get kids to be abstinent.”

Experts say the approach does not work. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit group that conducts reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, teens who have participated in abstinence-only programs may be at greater risk for pregnancy and STDs once they become sexually active because they lack enough accurate information to protect themselves.

According to a 1996 report by the Institute, 56% of young women and 73% of young men have had intercourse by age 18. In response, comprehensive programs discuss abstinence in a broader context, giving youth who choose to become sexually active the information they need to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. They also emphasize skills that kids need to truly “say no.” “They learn how to get up the guts to say no, how to say it, negotiate it, stick to it,” said Rodriguez.

Advocates of comprehensive sexuality education agree with Rodriguez, who says the federal government’s funding of abstinence-only education is “dominating the discussion and energy around sexuality education.” In Rodriguez’s words, “Money talks.”

Conservatives first tried, unsuccessfully, to channel federal funds to abstinence-only programs as part of an amendment to the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. They then turned their attention to health policy. By fall of 1995, language calling for $200 million in funding for abstinence-only education had been inserted in an early version of welfare reform legislation then being debated in Congress. The proposal included a detailed, restrictive definition of abstinence-only education, describing it in part as any program that had “as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.” The proposal went nowhere, largely because of an unpopular provision that would have taken the money from existing Maternal and Child Health Block Grants.

But conservative groups did not give up and ultimately succeeded in pressuring legislators — among them former Sen. Robert Dole — to insert an abstinence-only education provision in the final version of the welfare reform bill that was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in late 1996. Under this provision, $50 million a year was made available to states through the Maternal and Child Health Bureau to administer abstinence-only sexuality education programs from 1998 through 2002. Programs can target children, teens and young adults, and may be administered by schools, public agencies, or community-based organizations. States must match every four federal dollars with three of their own, bringing the total amount of public money available annually to about $88 million.

Daley of SIECUS traces the religious right’s ultimate success to two important lessons learned from their earlier, unsuccessful attempts to legislate abstinence-only programs. “Because it’s generally accepted that it’s not the federal government’s role to dictate [curriculum] content, they made an end run around education policy and worked through the health policy tradition,” he said. “They also learned that when there’s public debate on this issue, they lose. The stealth approach works.”

Deanna Duby, education director of the People for the American Way Foundation, attributed passage of the legislation to the religious right’s growing Congressional power and political sophistication. “We don’t have that many friends … to stand up on the floor of Congress and say, “I”m opposed to abstinence education.”

All States Apply for Funds

Many states initially struggled with the decision to apply for the federal abstinence-only funds, citing the restrictive nature of the legislation, as well as the religious tone and inaccuracy of most abstinence-only programs. Also problematic for state officials is the lack of evidence that such programs delay sexual intercourse. In some cases, abstinence-only curricula conflict with existing state laws spelling out guidelines for sex ed. Another problem: coming up with matching state funds. That’s no small task for a state such as New York, which will have to find $2,533,188 in state money in order to qualify for a total of $3,377,584 in federal funds in 1998.

Yet despite the drawbacks, every state in the union and the District of Columbia applied for federal money. “Clearly, many felt political pressure to do so,” said Daley. “Who wants to be painted as not being supportive of abstinence for young people?”

The money looks particularly good to perpetually cash-strapped local school districts that see the abstinence-only legislation as a lucrative source of new dollars over the next five years. Daley said districts saw the funds as “budget relief” — money that could be used to purchase curricula such as “Sex Respect” that meet the federal definition of abstinence and free up resources previously spent for comprehensive sex-ed programs. “It’s the path of least resistance — an easy, cheap way to save young people,” he said. “Unfortunately, life is much more complicated.”

Stan Kocos, regional director of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, predicted that efforts to reconcile the use of abstinence-only curricula paid for with federal dollars in states where such programs are deemed inappropriate — and perhaps illegal — was going to create “mass confusion.” He said creating confusion — in part by throwing out “as much misinformation as possible so that it’s difficult to examine” — ultimately would work to the advantage of those who want to narrow the curriculum. “School districts capitulate to get out from under the constant controversy,” he said. “You can only get pounded on so much before you say “This isn’t worth it anymore.”

Best Case Scenario

If there’s any good news on the abstinence-only front, it centers around valiant efforts in many states to find ways to use the new federal dollars for non-school-based, public health programs that supplement rather than replace existing comprehensive sexuality education programs.

Some examples: after-school, off-campus counseling and mentoring programs that provide at-risk youth with remedial education, career advice and adult supervision; programs that focus on preventing drug and alcohol abuse, which increases teens” vulnerability to sexual advances; and programs that help teens deal with depression, which can lead to acting out sexually. In other cases, states will target younger teens — especially those under 14 — for whom the abstinence-only message is particularly appropriate and who are most likely to take it seriously.

Some states, including Maine, are using their money for public service media campaigns reinforcing the message that abstinence is an appropriate choice. Mills, the director of the Maine Bureau of Health, said her office was planning a series of 60-second TV spots discussing the deadliness of HIV, the importance of parent-child communication, and the fact that “dating is more than hitting a home run and scoring.” She said the ads would deliver important messages while also counterbalancing today’s “sex-saturated” television programming.

But even as public health officials scramble to come up with responsible programs that qualify for the federal abstinence-only money, the religious right is trying to scuttle such efforts, which they say do not adhere closely enough to the letter of the abstinence-only law. The National Coalition for Abstinence Education, a far-right coalition of 45 mostly state-level groups, for example, is “grading” state strategies for promoting abstinence under the law. States that use their money for classroom programs focusing on the eight tenets of the federal definition of abstinence receive high grades. States that run media campaigns, target younger students, and run mentoring programs, receive “Fs.” Oklahoma and Louisiana are two states that have been forced to revise their plans because of low grades from NCAE.

Given such a climate, Daley and other advocates of comprehensive sexuality education often feel they are fighting a losing battle. Daley likens the abstinence-only funds to “hush money, so adults don’t have to worry about what’s happening to young people.” The legislation perpetuates the illusion, he said, “that if we just tell kids to say ‘no,’ and to respect marriage between heterosexuals, all our problems will be solved.”

“What we couldn’t do with half a billion dollars over the next five years and the cooperation of the nation’s governors,” Daley continued. “That’s what’s so disheartening. Five years will go by, and comprehensive programs that show promise will not have been funded. And that’s where we’ll be at the beginning of the new millennium.”