No Child Left Informed

By Concetta Erica Agro

“Eighty percent (80%) of the abstinence- only curricula…contain false, misleading or distorted information about reproductive health.”

“… Eleven of the thirteen curricula most commonly used by (federal) programs contain major errors and distortions of public health information.”

Those were some of the conclusions reached by a December 2004 Congressional report, conducted at the behest of the House of Representatives’ Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), which examined federally funded abstinence-only programs.

Congressman Waxman’s alarming findings brought to light the lack of oversight that federally funded abstinence-only programs receive.

The report highlights that, “the federal government does not review or approve the accuracy of the information presented in abstinence-only programs.” Applicants for these federally funded grants are simply required to submit a general outline or summary of the curriculum to be used.

The CostThe federal government has more than doubled its expenditures onthese programs in the last four years. Further, the requirement that states must match federal funds for abstinenceonly programs has caused many states to alter their spending practices. Dollars that were previously used to support comprehensive, medically accurate, sexuality education, which included but were not limited to abstinence education, have been rerouted to abstinence-only programs. This spending increase has multiplied the number of adolescents now receiving abstinence-only as their sole source of formalized education about contraception and sexual health. Abstinence-only education programs dictate not having sexual intercourse as the only way to reduce the risks of pregnancy, disease, and other possible consequences of sex. Federal requirements prohibit these programs from including any accurate information about contraception or about the prevention and detection of STIs (sexually transmitted infections). Contraceptives are only mentioned when trying to convince teens to avoid them. To achieve that end, these programs misrepresent the failure rate of contraceptives. The curricula never identify oral and anal sex as intercourse, nor do they address that these types of activity entail risk. Studies show these programs have no impact on actually preventing pregnancies or decreasing the risk of contracting an STI.

Egregious ErrorsThe most commonly used curricula cite the ineffectiveness of condoms to prevent transmission of HIV, STIs and pregnancy. The source of this misinformation is a scientifi c study that has been discredited by federal health offi cials and scientifi c consensus. Some of the curricula also contain blatant scientifi c errors. One curriculum labels sweat and tears as fl uids that transmit HIV, even though the scientifi c community dispelled this myth more than 10 years ago. They also present wrong or misleading information about the physical and psychological effects of legal abortion. They falsely state that sterility, premature birth leading to retardation, tubal and cervical pregnancies, and suicide are some of the possible effects of abortion.

The Silver Ring ThingSome curricula use religious teachings, which is in direct violation of federal funding rules. A component of many programs is abstinence or “virginity pledges.” Students vow, sometimes to God, not to have “sex.”

On May 16, 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took exception to such a curriculum by taking legal action against the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The ACLU charged that the HHS has illegally used tax dollars to fund an abstinence-only program, the Silver Ring Thing (SRT), that promotes Christianity. As part of the Bush administration’s expansion of abstinenceonly education, SRT has received more than one million dollars since 2003. The program consists of a three-hour presentation followed by secular and religious group meetings. The ACLU charges that students are encouraged to choose the religious groups and to sign up for Bible-based programs.

Guidelines for HHS abstinence-only funding clearly state that recipients affi liated with religious groups may receive funds; however, they are prohibited from using that money for religious purposes.

A major crisis is occurring because abstinence-only programs fail to define “sex” or advocate the use of condoms. These failings have caused a rapid rise in unprotected highrisk sexual behavior among virginity-pledgers. Pledgers who identifi ed themselves as virgins were six times more likely to have had oral sex; male pledgers were four times more likely to have had anal sex as their non-pledging counterparts. Pledgers have STI rates as high as non-pledgers. However, they are less likely to detect or seek medical treatment for their infections, increasing the danger of transmission.

Lubbock, TexasA community that highlights the severity of this problem is Lubbock County in Texas. In 1995, then-governor George W. Bush signed a law requiring Texas public schools to teach abstinence sex education. Texas became the third state with mandated abstinence sex education.

Prior to 1995, Lubbock had a high rate of teen pregnancies. In 1995 the community launched an abstinence-only offensive, complete with virginity pledges. Now, Lubbock County’s teen pregnancy rate is the highest in Texas by almost 10%. It also has the highest rate of STIs. As reported by UNESCO, Texas Teaches Abstinence, With Mixed Grades, “as rates for gonorrhea and chlamydia have fallen nationally, Lubbock County has confronted an epidemic.”

Much to their credit, it is the teenagers who are shining a light on the failures of their parents, educators and community leaders. A movie released this year titled The Education of Shelby Knox focuses on the true life story of a devout Christian teenager, Shelby Knox, who pledged abstinence until marriage but then became a strong and vocal advocate for comprehensive sex education. She is not alone in Lubbock. Other teens have given voice to the need to bring comprehensive sex education to the classroom through their work on the Lubbock Youth Commission.

Lubbock County is but one example of these federally funded programs being used as a vehicle for this administration to promote its extreme ideology. The actual cost of these programs will be measured over time by the fi nancial burden forced on society by the ramifi cations of abstinenceonly education.