Sex education in public schools no longer belongs exclusively to the cultural left. A movement committed to abstinence-only education, with and without government funding, is spreading among school systems throughout the nation.
- In Louisiana, nearly half of the state's 66 public-school systems have agreed to integrate abstinence education into their junior-high schools, and abstinence clubs have sprouted in nearly one-fourth of the high schools.
- In Buffalo, N.Y., officials credit after-school programs that emphasize abstinence for helping to reduce the number of teen pregnancies by 20 percent since 1996.
- Every state except California has bought into a matching-funds plan by Congress to create abstinence-only programs in the schools. About $500 million has poured into such programs since passage of the Title V welfare legislation in 1996. About $135 million is earmarked for programs next year, a $33 million increase over this year.
Driving the legislation: high teen-pregnancy rates (the highest in the developed world) and an alarming rise in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among teens. Researchers say that every year 3 million teenagers contract STDs. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta say it is "a serious epidemic" and they are "worried." By all accounts, large numbers of young teens engage in oral sex, and doctors are seeing STD infections in mouths and throats. (At-risk Americans once had to contend mainly with just two STDs: gonorrhea and syphilis. Now there are at least 20, some of them deadly.)
President Bush gave the legislation a ringing endorsement. And at the opening of the recent United Nations special session on children, Tommy Thompson, Health and Human Services secretary, announced the administration's position to the world: "Abstinence is the only sure way of avoiding sexually transmitted disease, premature pregnancy, and the social and personal difficulties attendant to nonmarital sexual activity."
Funded programs, often administered by private contractors on a grant basis, must be in harmony with a federal eight-point definition of abstinence-only education. The points include recognition "that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects" and that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity." Grants are open to private and religious groups to carry out the programs, but religious content is banned.
The Abstinence Clearinghouse, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., says it has identified about 700 new government-funded abstinence programs and 21 new media campaigns in the last two years alone.
School administrators across the country also have invited privately funded groups and instructors, including religious ones, to help spread the abstinence-only message to their students.
In Montgomery County, Md., for example, Gail Tierney's Crisis Pregnancy Center ministry has been working among middle- and high-school students for three years with a classroom presentation called "Worth the Wait." So far, she told WORLD, the campaign has reached some 18,000 kids, and an afternoon after-school support program was added recently.
Leading the campaign is Cassie Lauterbach, a "certified abstinence educator" with a gutter-to-glory testimony and a past tainted by abortion and STD but who's now living "an abstinent life."
"The kids listen to her," Mrs. Tierney said. "She deals mostly with the emotional impact of sex."
Liberal groups such as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), Planned Parenthood, and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) don't like it a bit. These organizations have long influenced how sex is taught in the schools. They advocate "comprehensive" or "safe-sex" education-classes that feature, among other things, explicit guidance on the use of condoms and other contraceptives. Critics maintain some of the methods these groups employ actually encourage teens to be sexually active. Abstinence often receives only a passing, dismissive mention.
The Maryland NARAL chapter has mounted a letter-writing campaign to school officials, urging them to bar Mrs. Tierney's program from the schools. In a memo to her members, NARAL leader Nancy Lineman wrote: "While we recognize the importance of an abstinence message as part of a comprehensive sex-education program, we are concerned about young people receiving biased information about sex from religiously based organizations."
The American Civil Liberties Union last month sued the state of Louisiana, claiming its $1.6-million Governor's Program on Abstinence was unconstitutionally promoting religion. The suit cited documents given to students that blame an increase in STD on "removing God from the classroom" and extol America's "Judeo-Christian heritage."
"Balderdash," replied program coordinator Dan Richey. He said religious groups that request funds to teach the abstinence curriculum must sign a contract pledging to teach with "secular purposes" in mind. He acknowledged that given hundreds of contracts and thousands of volunteers, "there may be a case or two where someone may get carried away."
Overall, legal experts seem agreed that as long as overt religious content is excluded, programs that focus on abstinence as a means of birth control and disease prevention are safe in court. Many abstinence educators also deal with psychological, emotional, and morality issues, either as part of their presentations or in response to students' questions. It's here where church-and-state watchdogs lie in wait.
Undeterred, Mr. Richey presses ahead. His goal is to establish abstinence clubs in all 425 of Louisiana's public high schools. The idea, he told a reporter, is to get youths to spread the abstinence message to other youths, "so then it's not 50-year-olds giving messages to high-school kids.... What better person to do that than a healthy, virile 16-year-old?" In many schools across the country, abstinence clubs are springing up from the grass roots-from initiatives by the students themselves, some with assists by concerned teachers and other school personnel, like school nurse Darlene Workman in Plano, Texas (see sidebar).
Helping to fuel this explosion of interest at grassroots level are a variety of national, regional, and local ministries that encourage teens to make public their pledges to be chaste and to reserve sex for their future mates. One of the best-known is True Love Waits (TLW), an 8-year-old effort sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention.
"We simply provide a way for teens to express their beliefs," Jimmy Hester, TLW's national coordinator, told WORLD.
At rallies and in special media campaigns, TLW challenges young people to make a for-the-record commitment to remain sexually pure. Those so committed sign cards pledging to remain abstinent until marriage. So far, Mr. Hester said, TLW has handed out 1.2 million cards in response to requests, either directly or through cooperating ministries. (Nearly 100 ministries have blended TLW into their own programs; they include Youth for Christ, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Josh McDowell Ministries, the crisis pregnancy center network, other Protestant denominations, and the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministries.)
At the 1996 SBC convention in Atlanta, 350,000 signed TLW cards were stacked to the roof of the Georgia Dome. A 1999 event saw 1,500 young people in a "prayer walk" carry 100,000 signed cards across the Golden Gate Bridge. In a recent TLW "Seize the Net" campaign, more than 1,000 youths attended a TLW rally at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth that was televised by satellite. It marked the end of a two-year campaign inviting young people to go to the truelovewaits.com website to sign online pledge cards. About 82,000 signed.
Richard Ross, TLW co-founder and a professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, explains the reason for TLW's splashy events: "In most of the schools [kids] go to, their impression would be that hardly anyone lives with abstinence. So, when they go to a rally with thousands or when they see hundreds of thousands of cards in a display, it helps them feel, 'I'm not alone. Lots and lots of people share my values.'[And] secular culture finds [all this] interesting."
No longer feeling marginalized, many students reached by TLW and similar ministries have been organizing abstinence support clubs on high-school and college campuses. Still, the liberal naysayers-including former surgeon general David Satcher-remain unimpressed. Their chorus has two main themes: abstinence-only approaches are ineffective, given the realities of modern-day teen sex attitudes and behavior patterns, and no research backs the notion that abstinence programs work.
However, increasing numbers of young people are coming forward to report an abstinence commitment is working for them. One study by the Centers for Disease Control found more than half of the country's high-school students saying they practice sexual abstinence. And researcher Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation documents 10 scientific studies of specific abstinence programs that have had a degree of life-changing impact on teens (www.heritage.org/Research/Family/BG1533.cfm).
Even some staunch liberals acknowledge the impact of such programs. "Abstinence-only education is one of the religious right's greatest victories," the National Coalition Against Censorship warned last year in a paper posted on the Planned Parenthood website.
But Leslee Underwood, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, applauds the abstinence efforts, and not just for its health benefits. Teens need to be discouraged from having sex because they aren't ready for the emotional consequences, she said. "We can't give them a condom for their heart."