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Feds Mandate Abstinence-Only Sex Ed

By Priscilla Pardini

In order to accomplish their goals, members of the religious right in the late 1980s began campaigning for -- and winning -- seats on local school boards across the country. The effect on sex ed has been significant. Since 1992, SIECUS' Community Advocacy Project has tracked more than 500 local controversies in 50 states around the issue of sexuality education. The following examples illustrate a number of current trends:

Abstinence-Only Vs. Comprehensive Sex Ed

Although the controversy over sexuality education is being played out in a number of ways, the abstinence-only movement is clearly having the biggest impact. Abstinence-only programs are reportedly used in about 25% of the nation's roughly 16,000 school districts. Among the most popular: "Sex Respect." (See the related story on Sex Respect.)

Based on fundamentalist Christian beliefs, they teach that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. The programs rely on fear tactics that, in effect, tell adolescents they are putting their lives at risk if they engage in premarital sex. "They tell kids they're going to go blind, get a disease, never be able to get pregnant, and ultimately die," said Monica Rodriguez, SIECUS' director of education. "That's it. That's how they get kids to be abstinent."

Experts say the approach does not work. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit group that conducts reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, teens who have participated in abstinence-only programs may be at greater risk for pregnancy and STDs once they become sexually active because they lack enough accurate information to protect themselves.

According to a 1996 report by the Institute, 56% of young women and 73% of young men have had intercourse by age 18. In response, comprehensive programs discuss abstinence in a broader context, giving youth who choose to become sexually active the information they need to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. They also emphasize skills that kids need to truly "say no." "They learn how to get up the guts to say no, how to say it, negotiate it, stick to it," said Rodriguez.

Advocates of comprehensive sexuality education agree with Rodriguez, who says the federal government's funding of abstinence-only education is "dominating the discussion and energy around sexuality education." In Rodriguez's words, "Money talks."

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