1. Abstinence-Only Education's "Stranglehold" On the Lone Star State.
A new report, "Just Say Don't Know," finds that abstinence-only sex-education programs have a "stranglehold" on Texas public schools. The study, conducted by David Wiley and Kelly Wilson of the Texas State University-San Marcos and the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), found that over 94 percent of Texas school districts "do not give students any human sexuality instruction beyond abstinence," with another 2 percent offering no sexuality education at all.
Texas has been a poster child for abstinence-only since 1995, when the state legislature designated it as the "preferred" method for teaching sex education. Although abstinence-only education isn't legally mandated in the state, it is obviously encouraged. Texas was the largest single recipient of federal taxpayer money for abstinence-only programs -- $18 million in 2007 alone.
In nearly 10 percent of Texas school districts, Christian teaching is a key component of the abstinence-only program. Eighteen districts use materials distributed by Focus on the Family and one uses True Love Waits, distributed by the Southern Baptist Convention.
Other districts use "homegrown" programs, like Wonderful Days, used by three Fort Worth-area districts, which advises students that they can be "born again of The Almighty Himself." The program also counsels that "you will be amazed when the 'sperm' of His Spirit connects with the 'ovum/egg' of your spirit and you become a 'new person' with his character" and points them to supporting biblical passages. A handy letter encouraging school districts to adopt Wonderful Days explains the program's name: the two best days of a woman's life, her wedding day and the day her first baby is born -- in that order, of course. Another district reported using Motherwise, which is intended for church use to "equip mothers worldwide with God's truth that transforms the family."
Ryan Valentine, TFN's deputy director, said that the "homegrown" programs -- whether they are blatantly or latently religious -- are the most "egregious" and are often adopted by school districts because "the superintendent gets a call from [a local] group that says, 'we'll give you your sex education for free.'" (The programs, therefore, are not dependent on federal abstinence-only funding.) While some of the programs clearly violate the First Amendment's establishment clause prohibiting government sponsorship of religion, Valentine said, "districts that include most obviously unconstitutional material tend to be rural, with homogenous, conservative populations," making it less likely that parents would challenge them.
2. The Fate of Federal Abstinence Funding.
The federal government doled out over $120 million for abstinence-only education last year, but supporters of comprehensive sex education are looking to the Obama administration to lead the new Congress to end funding for these scientifically debunked programs. "We know members of Congress are ready to take a scalpel to these programs but the president needs to provide leadership first," said William Smith, vice president for public policy of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).
SIECUS, like Obama, supports the Prevention First bill, which includes funding for the Responsible Education About Life Act (REAL), a comprehensive sex-education program, and which has been reintroduced in both houses.
Even if abstinence-only funding is eliminated from the federal budget, other federal programs may still be dispersing funds to abstinence programs, Smith said. The lack of transparency in the Bush faith-based initiative, which Obama has pledged to remedy, makes it difficult to trace whether grants from other programs are used at the state level to promote abstinence-only education. The first step in reform, Smith said, would be to examine whether grantees under abstinence-only programs were also getting money from other programs through the faith-based initiatives and diverting it to promote abstinence-only education. "We need to do much more to figure out what people are doing with extraordinary amounts of taxpayer money," he said.
Nonetheless, Smith added, "as an organization we're willing to give this president a little bit of breathing room to figure out what this looks like. You can't undo eight years worth of entire structural programs in a month and a half."
3. Sex Education as Part of "Abortion Reduction": Legislative Update. A coalition of reproductive-health advocates plans to urge the co-sponsors of the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act (also known as the Ryan-DeLauro Act), to make changes to the legislation before reintroducing it in the House. As written, the bill includes grants for teen pregnancy prevention, but Smith of SIECUS said the bill doesn't specify that such prevention programs would be the same comprehensive sex education as required by the REAL Act. Reproductive-health advocates are hoping the bill's sponsors get more specific about the components of comprehensive sex education, including the benefits and risks of contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Third Way, which spearheaded the Come Let Us Reason Together (CLURT) coalition, worked closely with Reps. Tim Ryan and Rosa DeLauro's office in drafting the legislation. CLURT's most recent statement on abortion reduction in its Governing Agenda calls for "prevention policies" that provide "grants for sex education (age-appropriate, medically accurate and complete contraceptive information with an abstinence emphasis) and support for teen pregnancy prevention programs, including after school programs and resources to help parents better communicate with teens, and increased access to contraception for low-income women."
REAL gets specific on items the CLURT Governing Agenda is silent on, including requirements that sex education that "does not teach or promote religion ... [provide] information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives and barrier methods as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; ... [teach] young people the skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances; and ... [teach] young people how alcohol and drug use can effect responsible decision making."
Rachel Laser, director of Third Way's Culture Program and a co-author of the Governing Agenda, said, "I cannot imagine that any religion instruction would be eligible under our language. The rest of the policies would clearly be within medically accurate, comprehensive prevention." She added that she wouldn't have any objection to REAL being rolled into Ryan-DeLauro as it has been rolled into Prevention First. David Gushee, one of CLURT's evangelical authors, also told me he'd like to see REAL rolled into Ryan-DeLauro.
4. "Culture Wars" Not Quite Over.
Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, one of several Democrats who won office in 2006 by allegedly closing the "God gap," is circulating a letter to House leaders, urging them to retain the Hyde Amendment and other riders to any appropriations measures that would maintain restrictions on reproductive-health services for low-income women.
The Hyde Amendment prevents federal Medicaid funds from covering abortion services, disproportionately affecting low-income women. Shuler claims to have a "commitment to life [that] extends beyond the womb and means ensuring that all people have adequate health care." He also says he wants women to have access to health care -- it's just that he gets to decide what kind of health-care services they can have access to. Twenty-one Democrats and over 100 Republicans have signed the letter; the religious right is cheering them on.
On the horizon, the religious right is gearing up to contest Obama's expected nomination of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to be secretary of Health and Human Services. The reason: her "extremist" views on abortion. (Sebelius is pro-choice.) This won't matter just for her nomination; access to reproductive-health services in any health-care reform initiatives will be hotly contested as well. Aren't you glad William Saletan has all the answers for you?
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