September 2007

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News and Opinion

The Right Is Wrong About Sex Education

-- Eleanor Levie

It is back to school time, and at far too many public secondary schools, that means it is also back to the dark ages of promoting ignorance and religious rhetoric instead of factual information about human sexuality. In many pockets of Pennsylvania, as in the nation, schools are failing our teens. Failing to provide accurate information about life. Failing to keep them safe from AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Failing to teach comprehensive sexuality education.

Concerned teachers and parents whisper horror stories — always on conditions of anonymity. A teacher from Philadelphia where middle school students are overwhelmingly poor, African American, and reading below grade level, spoke about girls offering oral sex for a dollar, at the movies and even on the playground. Affluent kids reading at or above grade level may be just as likely to fall victim to ignorance and peer pressure. One suburban mother told of her 13-year-old son confiding of bar mitzvah party "gifts" of oral sex, and relaying his own personal misconceptions, such as "taking daily showers will keep me safe from STDs."

Governmental Sanctions

Is it any wonder adolescents lack the information they need to make wise decisions about their lives? More than one billion dollars in federal funding -- $176 million in 2006 alone -- have been doled out for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In contrast, there has never been any federal funding stream at all for comprehensive sex education.

President Bush and a minority from the extreme religious right are staunch defenders of abstinence as the only acceptable form of behavior outside of marriage -- for people of any age. The programs they support promote ignorance over science and prohibit teachers from providing any information about contraception, except for discussing failure rates. American youngsters participating in federally funded abstinence-only programs have been fed fallacies galore, such as:

  • "Abortion can lead to suicide."
  • "10 percent of women become sterile after an abortion."
  • "Touching a person’s genitals can result in pregnancy."
  • "Condoms do not help stop the spread of STDs."
  • "Half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus."

Practically ignored by such programs are the needs of kids who are or have been sexually active; one teacher advised such a student to "renew their virginity." Ignored are the needs of students who are or have been the victims of sexual violence. Ignored are the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered students, and those questioning their sexual identities.

Religious Rhetoric

For any progressive outraged about the intrusion and imposition of one set of religious beliefs in public schools, the picture is even worse. Many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs currently funded by the federal government and taught in public schools use messages about abstinence that are couched in religious beliefs, including assumptions of when life begins. The Silver Ring Thing, which has received more than $1 million from the government over the last few years, conducts a nationwide touring program that features a 3-hour "abstinence-only" presentation with prominent religious themes and rhetoric, including the following passage from the New Testament.

For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor... (1 Thess. 4:3-4.)

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not only dispensing medical inaccuracies, they have also been shown to be ineffective – and even dangerous. All the major medical, public health research groups and institutions – the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Nurses Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Psychological Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the Institute of Medicine – support comprehensive sexuality education.

Who does not remember when Senator Bill Frist, a former medical doctor serving as Majority Leader of the Senate, was unwilling to dispute the notion that AIDS can be spread via sweat and tears. On the other side of the Capitol, Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) has actively exposed the flaws and dangers of abstinence-only curricula. Reports issued in 2004 from his office found that 80 percent of the programs studied included distorted information. Waxman has repeatedly warned that, "Something is seriously wrong when federal tax dollars are being used to mislead kids about basic health facts."

NGOs Say No to Abstinence Only

Leading the Jewish community in the fight for age appropriate, medically accurate sex education is the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). It has launched Plan A: NCJW’s Campaign for Contraceptive Access. As a volunteer organization inspired by Jewish values, NCJW defends religious freedom and the wall separating religion and state. NCJW President Phyllis Snyder speaks out against "small but powerful minority that is attempting to impose a single religious belief on us all…(in) a climate where -- time and again -- ideology and politics trump sound science and medicine." Plan A details the impact that can be felt in homes, pharmacies, and doctors' offices, as well as public schools.

NCJW members often work in coalition with other organizations with national scope and grass roots activists. The ACLU, People for the American Way, SIECUS-- the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, and Planned Parenthood are all advocating for comprehensive sex education. Here in Pennsylvania, NCJW and other progressive organizations work together through PARSE: Pennsylvanians for Responsible Sex Education.

Good News Ahead?

In one of the last votes in the House before the August recess, the U.S. House of Representatives attached some conditions to Title V of the Social Security Act that would require that any funded program be proven effective at decreasing teen pregnancy, STD, and HIV/AIDS rates. This was part of the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), set to expire on September 30. Should the Senate approve this bill, and the President sign it into law, much of the decision-making will be given over to the state legislatures.

Clearly, we all need to go back to school. Parents of school age children need to find out what is being taught to their children. Does the program provide age-appropriate, medically accurate information? Is the teacher certified and qualified to teach sex education without mixing personal "pro-choice" or "pro-life" ideology or religious rhetoric? Does the teacher also encourage family communication about sexuality, and help young people with their negotiation skills? Principals need to think long and hard before relegating sex education to whatever gym teachers happen to be available. Federal legislators need to become educated about the Responsible Education About Life, or REAL Act, which would provide federal funds for comprehensive sex education. State legislators need to devote funding to accredited programs, certification standards and curriculum oversight. It all comes down to getting young people the information they need and have a right to, information to help them make wise decisions. In today’s world, teenagers cannot afford a failing grade for sex education.

Eleanor Levie is a national board member of the National Council of Jewish Women and chair of that organization’s Pennsylvania Public Affairs committee.

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