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Sex-ed sells

"Sex-ed sells" Continued...

Issue: "Don't have a cow," Aug. 11, 2001

Why would a study on teen pregnancy prevention endorse curricula that fail to measure or reduce teen pregnancy rates? For the answer, it helps to review Mr. Kirby's conclusion: "The overwhelming weight of evidence shows that sex education that discusses contraception does not increase sexual activity," he wrote. "The research indicates that encouraging abstinence and urging the better use of contraception are compatible goals." The conclusion emphasizes what safe-sex programs did not do rather than what they actually accomplished, making it look like the real objective was not to study pregnancy rates, but to promote federally funded safe-sex programs.

And increasingly safe-sex programs need such promotional assistance. The 1996 welfare reform bill allocated over $50 million to abstinence education, and President Bush has promised an additional $137 million. Meanwhile, at least seven states have passed laws requiring public schools to emphasize abstinence until marriage when teaching sex education. That trend has threatened safe-sex advocates who, undergirded by 20 years of federal funding, regarded public schools as their uncontested turf.

In the medical publication STD Advisor, safe-sex advocates vented their frustration: "We got condoms in the schools because we were aggressive," said CDC adviser Dorothy Mann, who oversees Philadelphia family-planning clinics. "Too often we are nice guys and we keep backing up and getting on the defensive." Another CDC adviser suggested using "researchers in your battles so that you aren't alone."

According to South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, the CDC used carrot-stick grants to pressure school districts into using curricula, including ETR's "Reducing the Risk." "It is our understanding that in order for the State of South Carolina to receive grant monies … the state is required to use five curricula which CDC designates as 'programs that work,'" said a statement released by Mr. Condon last summer. Arguing that the curricula violated the state's abstinence law, he cited a "Reducing the Risk" worksheet called "The Steps to Protection":

"Suppose you are concerned about preventing a pregnancy or preventing STD and want to use a condom and foam. The steps to protection are described. You are to write how you would do it," says the worksheet. Another worksheet requires students to visit or call a family-planning clinic. "Simply putting the word 'AIDS' on the cover of a health education textbook does not permit educators to place a graphic sex manual or promotional advocacy for condoms inside," said Mr. Condon. He has threatened to prosecute 11 school districts using CDC-endorsed curricula.

The CDC's Dr. Kolbe denied that his organization requires states to use "Programs that Work" in order to receive grants: "There is absolutely no requirement, there never has been and there never would be.... We simply identify these curricula, and we provide support for there to be one training in the curricula that people can go to if they're interested."

But Ohio health teacher Carol Freas says it was school officials who didn't give her any choice. After they blocked her efforts to introduce an abstinence curriculum three years ago, she attended one of those government-funded, "Programs That Work" training sessions. At the three-day seminar, trainers taught Mrs. Freas and eight other attendees how to get "Programs That Work," including "Reducing the Risk," into their local school districts: "We were told to find people in the district who have control over the curriculum. They also told us that each school district has curriculum standards that the teacher has to cover during the year, and that we would be called upon to help rewrite those standards."

During one strategy session, trainers showed a film depicting a mother pleading with her local school board not to adopt safe-sex curricula. Trainees laughed and jeered at the woman as instructors discussed how to handle similar objections. "I felt so out of place," said Mrs. Freas. But as others jeered, she took notes and made audio tapes. At the end of the program, instructors asked graduates to sign a contract promising they would train 20 other people. Mrs. Freas fulfilled her commitment by training 20 Christian activists who launched a statewide campaign to defund CDC-endorsed curricula. She also took her seminar notes and tapes to local talk shows and legislators. As a result, Ohio sent roughly $1 million back to CDC in 1999. Other states, including Utah and Nebraska, have followed suit with similar proposals. But Mrs. Freas isn't celebrating: "Our one little victory did not stop their agenda; it's still proceeding like a freight train."

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