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Abstinence Education | Teen pregnancy rates are the highest in the developed world. Now once-reluctant public educators give the save-sex message a chance-as abortion profiteers' ideological allies fight abstinence programs in court

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

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."

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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."

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