Libby Macke

(WOMENSENEWS)–Reproductive rights activists say they are seeing new resistance by states to sex education programs that only teach abstinence until marriage, a hallmark stance of the Bush Administration.

"It’s taken a lot of years, but states are saying ‘no thanks,’" said Martha Kempner, vice president of information and communications at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

So far, 13 states have evaluated their abstinence-only programs and all have found the programs to be ineffective, Kempner said. In a report last July, the Sexuality Information and Education Council also found that other states are screening curricula for school children more closely. Three states that had formerly accepted abstinence-only funding have begun declining it.

"I think there is a pushback by the states on accuracy," said Kempner.

The council opposes programs in which the only advice offered about premarital sex is to avoid it. Instead it favors comprehensive sex education courses that include safe-sex practices along with abstinence.

On a federal level, questions are being raised about such programs as well.

On Oct. 18, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office warned the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that it is violating federal law by failing to require that federally funded educational programs include medically accurate information about condom effectiveness.

The department had asserted that the statute did not apply to materials used by federal abstinence education grantees because they were not designed to address specifics of sexual health. But the GAO found otherwise. A workbook widely used by abstinence education grantees included lessons on how HIV affects the body’s immune system. Excluding information on condom use in a workbook with similar scientific themes violates the statute, the GAO concluded.

$1 Billion for Abstinence Programs

Since 1998, more than $1 billion in federal funds have been allocated to abstinence-only programs, including nearly $800 million between 2001 and 2006, during the presidency of George W. Bush.

This year, Bush called for doubling abstinence education funding and developing an abstinence-only educational model to "ensure that the federal government is sending a consistent health message to teens."

Those funds have not yet been authorized by Congress and some states have begun to think twice about accepting them.

After the changes to federal welfare laws in 1996, the U.S. government began offering states $50 million in block grants to fund programs that teach abstinence only under Title V, enacted in 1935 to improve women’s and children’s health nationwide. States match the program with $3 for every $4 the federal government provides. Only one state, California, has never accepted Title V monies. The Abstinence Education Program was amended to Title V in 1997.

But recent reports questioning the accuracy and efficacy of abstinence-only programs have spurred several states to reject or reduce funding under Title V.

In September 2005 Maine became the third state after California and Pennsylvania to reject Title V federal funding for abstinence-only programs.

New Mexico has also restricted Title V money to programs that serve children in the sixth grade and below, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council report.

Although some states are passing up federal dollars for abstinence-only programs, other attempts to legislate the teaching of contraception and safe sex have failed.

New York State’s Healthy Teen Act, for instance, failed in the state Legislature this summer. It would have allowed districts to apply for grants to fund sex ed classes that provide "at-risk adolescents with the information, assistance, skills and support to enable them to make responsible decisions," including abstinence and contraceptive use. Abiding by these regulations would have denied school districts federal funds for sex education because they would not have stuck with an abstinence-only message.

Bush Says Abstinence Protects Teens

Since his days as governor of Texas, Bush has asserted that teaching abstinence to school children will help teens avoid pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and improve their self esteem.

Groups such as the Sexuality Information and Education Council and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, both based in New York, counter that children have a right to accurate and comprehensive information about sex and contraception. They say the abstinence-only approach makes teens who are already sexually active vulnerable to unintended pregnancy, HIV-AIDS and other diseases.

A June 2005 study by Dr. Scott Frank of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland found that the curricula used in Ohio’s abstinence-only programs–offered in 85 out of 88 counties–contain false and misleading information about abortion and contraception. It also found the curricula reinforced gender stereotypes and notions about sex that are not based in science. One program told teens they should "be prepared to die" if they use condoms because they are likely to fall off or break, according to Frank’s study.

The author recommended that the state revise its sex education policies to include information on sexually transmitted diseases and experts review the content of abstinence-only programs. Ohio received $7.7 million in federal funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in 2005, among the highest in the nation.

A report released earlier this month by the Sexuality Information and Education Council and co-sponsored by the Washington-based National Education Association also found inaccuracies in abstinence-only curricula. One program asserted that condoms have a 14 percent failure rate; the actual failure rate is 2 percent.

Supporters Defend Curricula

Libby Macke, director of Project Reality, which develops and presents abstinence materials to 120,000 students nationwide and is based in Glenview, Ill., challenges the objectivity of the Sexuality Information report.

"Trusting an organization like the Sexuality Information and Education Council to give reliable and accurate information about the state of abstinence programs in America would be like relying on one popular cola company to give accurate data on why another cola tastes better," Macke said.

Advocates of abstinence-only education say there is plenty of evidence that teaching abstinence works.

A 2002 report by the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, cited 10 studies to support that view. For instance, virginity pledges–public vows to abstain from sex–helped teens delay sexual activity for as long as 18 months, a study of more than 14,000 students found. The study was conducted by professors at Columbia and Yale universities and was published in 2001 in the American Journal of Sociology.

A 2005 follow-up study by the same researchers, however, found that teens who take virginity pledges are nearly as likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease as teens who don’t take the pledge. The pledged teens also were less likely to use condoms and more likely to experiment with anal and oral sex, the researchers found.

Since the mid-1990s, teen pregnancy rates have dropped from 1.5 million pregnancies a year to 800,000, spurring debate over what is causing the decline.

Abstinence-only advocates attribute the decline to federal and state support for abstinence programs. Opponents say many factors could explain the drop, including teen awareness of condoms and HIV.

Rebecca Vesely writes frequently about health issues from Oakland, Calif.