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Sex-ed for dummies

Education | With abstinence-only programs under fire, lawmakers renew push for "comprehensive" programs that don't comprehend parental values

Issue: "'Darkest moment'," April 28, 2007

Warning: Graphic material

Before state Sen. Brad Zaun on April 9 began reading from a proposed sex-education curriculum on the floor of the Iowa senate, he told parents in the gallery that they might want to remove their children from the chamber.

Some did. Then Zaun, a Republican, began reading from Safer Choices, Level 1, the "comprehensive" and "medically accurate" curriculum that Senate Democrats claimed would serve Iowa public-school kids better than abstinence-based sex education: "'Explain that students will now have a chance to work in pairs to practice with condoms,'" Zaun read. "'Explain that one person will read the directions on the worksheet while the other practices unrolling a condom over two fingers.'"

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During floor sessions, the Senate chamber usually hums as lawmakers and aides mill about and confer among themselves, said Republican Sen. Paul McKinley. Now, though, the chamber was as still as a crypt.

"'As soon as erection occurs . . . pinch the tip of the condom between thumb and forefinger to get rid of any air pockets and to create a space for the semen during ejaculation,'" Zaun read on. "'Put the condom against the head of the erect penis . . .'"

Now Democrats and others in the chamber "fidgeted, some had their heads down," said McKinley, who was seated across from the Democratic caucus. "It was a very tense, uneasy atmosphere."

Zaun continued, reading aloud about the genital mechanics that occur just after two people have sex. "I was surprised someone did not raise a [point-of-order] protest about the graphic nature of the language," McKinley said.

An outraged parent later told McKinley she was surprised Democrats- and three crossover Republicans-voted to approve for classroom use a curriculum so graphic that it made adult lawmakers squirm like red-faced schoolboys.

Iowa's sex-ed battle was just one early April skirmish in what is shaping up to be a national war on abstinence education. In statehouses, governors' mansions, and Congress, liberal lawmakers, backed by Planned Parenthood and others, are arguing that abstinence education endangers kids. What is needed, they say, is a "comprehensive" and "medically accurate" approach that teaches abstinence plus contraception and "safe sex."

All this rumbling occurs just ahead of a critical debate in Congress: This summer lawmakers will decide whether to renew Title V, a federal block grant program, which gives participating states four federal dollars for every three state dollars they spend on abstinence education.

During the first two weeks of April, state legislators in Washington, Colorado, and Iowa passed bills requiring the "comprehensive" approach. Washington's measure bans "abstinence-only" education outright. Governors in all three states are expected to sign the bills into law.

Meanwhile, governors in six states-Ohio, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Montana, and New Jersey-have refused, or plan to refuse, federal abstinence education funding on the grounds that abstinence education doesn't work. "If the state is going to spend money on teaching and protecting kids, the governor believes it's better to spend it on a smarter, more comprehensive approach," Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Ohio Gov. Tim Strickland, told the Los Angeles Times.

To aid the anti-abstinence movement, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) fired a new sex-ed salvo in Congress March 22, introducing the "Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act," a bill that would create federal funding for states that want to implement "comprehensive" sex education.

"We shouldn't be holding back information that can save lives and prevent unwanted pregnancies," said Lee, alluding to schools that use abstinence-based curricula.

Shays said high teen pregnancy rates and growing STD infection rates among teens underscore "the necessity of comprehensive sexual education. They need to be taught about both abstinence and contraception."

But the results of a study commissioned by Congress don't support that conclusion. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., last week released a long-anticipated study of four abstinence programs among the hundreds in use across the country. Senior researcher Chris Trenholm said his group found "no evidence" that abstinence programs increase the rate of unprotected sex.

Meanwhile, youth who participated in abstinence programs "identified a significantly higher proportion of STDs than control group youth and . . . were significantly more likely than control group youth to report (correctly) that birth control pills are never effective at preventing STDs."

Those weren't the main messages news-watchers around the world got last week, though. Instead, headlines trumpeted Mathematica's finding that abstinence programs did not increase abstinence:

The Associated Press: "Abstinence classes don't stop sex."

Education Week: "Abstinence programs don't work, study finds."

Mail and Guardian: "$1 billion 'don't have sex' campaign a flop."

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