Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Iowa Rejects Abstinence-Only Funding

Iowa Governor Chet Culver has rejected federal funding for abstinence-only sex education. The move is the result of a law passed last year, which requires all sex education to be medically accurate.

"There's been discussion on whether or not we should be accepting these federal monies at all because the criteria for abstinence-only programs at the federal level is not medically accurate," said [Rep.] Mascher, who is sponsoring Thursday's policy briefing. "The standards that [organizations] have to abide by for the federal money do not call for scientifically-based information. In essence, [the guideline conflicts] would prevent schools from getting those monies. They could still teach abstinence-only sexual education, but they can't use the federal dollars in order to do it."

Representatives from FutureNet, the Iowa Network for adolescent pregnancy prevention, parenting and sexual health, are scheduled to speak at the briefing and to call for the complete refusal of Title V abstinence-only education funding. Iowa currently receives roughly $319,000 from the program, which is administered by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Prior to Bethany Christian Services of Northwest Iowa being awarded a $600,000 non-matching grant last September from the Administration of Children, Youth and Families (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), the Title V monies were the only such federal abstinence education funding in the state. Nationally, Title V provides more than $40 million a year in matching funds to states.

What exactly are the guidelines that Mascher refers to? In order to qualify for federal abstinence-only funding, a sex ed program must meet eight criteria:

A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;

B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;

C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;

D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;

E) teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;

F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society;

G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances; and

H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

Several of these required lessons are entirely inaccurate, and none of them are scientifically-based.

Saying that out-of-wedlock sex is not the "expected standard" is just plain false -- 95% of people have sex before marriage. The claim also completely ignores the existence of gay and lesbian students, who cannot legally marry a member of the same sex. Telling these students to remain celibate for their entire lives simply isn't going to work, but it will result in a lost moment to teach about reducing the risk of STDs.

The requirements impose a value judgment on sexual activity and leave no room for flexibility. Claiming that out-of-wedlock births are harmful to children and society is demeaning, incorrect, and embarrassing to students who were not born into or raised in a family with two married parents. Similarly, it's simply untrue that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to cause harmful psychological effects. The argument is a scare-tactic, without regard for the effect it will have on students. Telling teenagers that having sex at their age is not normal and will result in harmful psychological effects isn't exactly the way to win them over. This is particularly true for students who have already had sex and have not experienced these effects -- if they know that what they are being taught is untrue, how can we expect them to trust their teachers on the genuinely good reasons for abstaining from sexual activity (like pregnancy and STD prevention)?

In practice, abstinence-only programs go beyond the required rhetoric. Students are often taught that condoms don't work -- which is entirely false. Programs also tend to include language that promotes dangerous stereotypes about gender-- including the ideas that men cannot control their sexuality, a couple abstaining from sex must rely on the woman to do so, and women don't feel sexual desire based on physical attraction. A common lesson is that people who are not virgins are "used" and ruined for their future partners. They can be compared to "spoiled food," a once-beautiful rose that has lost all of its petals, and chewed candy.

On top of it all, abstinence-only curriculum doesn't even work! Students who receive abstinence-only education are just as likely to engage in sexual activity but less likely to use condoms. And most parents want their kids to be taught comprehensive sex education, including how to prevent pregnancy and STDs using contraception.

Late last year, our own Governor Spitzer made the wise decision to no longer accept abstinence-only funds from the federal government. This doesn't mean that NY teens will no longer be taught abstinence -- comprehensive sex education programs include information about abstinence, and abstinence-only programs can still exist but do not have to meet the federal criteria that includes false information. Rejecting abstinence-only education is an important move for states to make; it protects their teenagers and also encourages the federal government to reconsider setting aside so much money for programs that produce negative or no results. Iowa is the 17th state to reject abstinence-only funding. It seems like people are starting to realize the importance of quality sex education -- let's hope that federal lawmakers start to listen!

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