(WOMENSENEWS)--An end to abstinence-only sex education was at the top of the list when 600 self-described feminists met in New York recently to rally their ranks and craft a platform for U.S. presidential lobbying.
Abstinence-only--for which President Bush proposes a 2008 budget of $204 million--has avid supporters and wary detractors, who want to find a more comprehensive way to present sex education.
In March, three members of Congress introduced a bill to authorize federal funds for states' comprehensive sex education that offers menu of options from abstinence to contraception and abortion. The Responsible Education About Life Act--or the REAL Act as the bill is known--was sponsored by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.; Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
The following month a congressional study found that abstinence-only education--which emphasizes chastity, or abstaining from sex, as the best practice for teens--did not significantly delay their decisions whether to have sex.
Over a dozen states have dodged abstinence-only curricula for their schools by declining the funds that mandate it.
On Nov. 14 Virginia became the latest when Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's proposed budget eliminated the $275,000 matching grant that is part of the federal funding.
Plenty of GOP boosters remain on Capitol Hill, however.
In the wake of President Bush's Oct. 3 veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program--the low-cost health insurance for families who don't qualify for Medicaid but can't afford private insurance--some Democratic advocates of SCHIP tried to sweeten it for Republicans by attaching a $28 million increase in abstinence funding. That effort failed, but it showed the extent to which abstinence funding is viewed as a potent bipartisan bargaining.
Philosophical Tug of War
For nearly a decade, since Bush increased funding for abstinence programs that were by and large introduced during Bill Clinton's administration, the philosophical struggle over sex education has been between an abstinence-only approach and comprehensive sex-ed.
Out of that tug of war, compromisers have for a couple of years been promoting a middle way: "abstinence-plus," which mentions abstinence within a broader discussion of safe sex.
Programs combining both abstinence and contraception were most effective, a Nov. 7 study by the Washington-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported, echoing Virginia Gov. Kaine's reasons for declining abstinence-only funding.
But abstinence-plus by no means pleases everyone.
In 2004 the Heritage Foundation, the Washington think tank, warned that abstinence instruction comprises only about 5 percent of abstinence-plus curricula. In authentic abstinence curricula, that figure should be 54 percent, the report said.
Abstinence advocates argue that studies pinpointing abstinence-only education as a failure surveyed children too young to understand the message and didn't reach a large enough sample of abstinence programs.
Few of the presidential candidates have said much yet about any of this, and few in the news media have asked on the campaign trail.
Here's what can be said about their positions so far.
Joe Biden supports "age-appropriate" and comprehensive sex education but the Delaware senator has also voted to fund abstinence programs.
Hillary Clinton has favored abstinence-plus for a decade. In 1996 as first lady she helped launch the teen pregnancy campaign, which has a goal of reducing teen pregnancy by one-third by 2015 through comprehensive education and awareness. Ten years later, as New York senator, she introduced the Prevention First Act, which would have allocated $100 million for family planning services in an effort to curb teen pregnancy.
Chris Dodd's Web site says the Connecticut senator is "appalled" by the Bush administration's abstinence-only programs.
John Edwards promotes comprehensive sex education according to his Web site. The former North Carolina senator's campaign did not return phone calls.
Mike Gravel, former senator from Alaska, said he favored comprehensive sex education in a questionnaire he returned to the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich is the only presidential candidate who is a co-sponsor of the Responsible Education About Life Act that emphasizes comprehensive programs.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama introduced the Communities of Color Teen Pregnancy Prevention Act of 2007 in Illinois. He respects abstinence as a choice but also advocates age-appropriate comprehensive sex education.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson favors abstinence-plus.
Rudy Giuliani, the only Republican candidate still waffling about his pro-choice stance, avoids the topic. He talks about increasing adoptions and decreasing abortions but is mum on sex education. As New York City mayor for eight years, he presided over a major free condom distribution campaign that included public schools. A campaign spokesperson says Giuliani's stance can be compared to what he says about education in general: "The enforcer of standards should . . . be the parent."
John McCain promotes abstinence-only programs but the Arizona senator has previously promoted comprehensive sex education.
Mitt Romney promoted abstinence education in Massachusetts classrooms as governor of that state from 2003 to 2007. Romney mentioned this in the May South Carolina debates to show his credentials as a "clear and consistent conservative." Alex Burgos, a campaign staffer, said Romney believes schools should "promote abstinence as part of their health curriculum and teach that marriage comes before babies." Romney, however, checked a box saying he supported comprehensive sex education in a 2002 Planned Parenthood candidate survey.
Fred Thompson, former Tennessee senator, backs abstinence education.
Duncan Hunter, California representative, favors "equal emphasis" on abstinence. He wants to give abstinence the same amount of teaching as the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.
Mike Huckabee favors abstinence-only and opposes abstinence-plus. In response to a question asking whether his religious beliefs would allow him to support AIDS prevention in Africa that might include contraception, the Arkansas governor compared it with domestic violence and said compromising on either issue is not an option. "We don't say that a little domestic violence is OK, just cut it down a little, just don't hit quite as hard," says the former Arkansas governor. "We say it's wrong."
Ron Paul, the Texas representative, favors abstinence-only programs.
Tom Tancredo, the Colorado representative, favors abstinence-only programs.
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based journalist covering the 2008 campaign. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.
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For more information:
Women's eNews Spotlight on 2008 Presidential Election:
Human Rights Campaign, Candidate questionnaire on LGBT issues:
National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy:
Mathematica Policy Research, Abstinence education report, April 2007
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