When Silence = Death: The Bush Administration's New "Abstinence Only" Policies Put American Kids At Risk

  By Jane Weinkrantz

    In the 1980s, the gay rights group ACT UP used the slogan "Silence=Death" to impress upon the public the importance of talking about HIV prevention. Without discussion and education, many more people would die, said ACT UP. So members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) used measures that were extreme, dramatic and effective to get their message out. Although eradicating AIDS and HIV is still a goal and not a reality, there is no doubt that the loud voices of groups like ACT UP contributed to HIV awareness and prevention.

    Now the Bush administration is creating a policy we can think of as SHUSH UP (Shoving Highly Unscientific Sexphobic Hogwash Upon People) by planning to spend $170 million this year on abstinence education programs. The Administrationís viewpoint on the topic---taken directly from the White House web page---reads as follows, "The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s has left two major problems in its wake. The first is the historic increase in non-marital births that have contributed so heavily to the nationís domestic problems including poverty, violence and intergenerational welfare dependency. The second is the explosion of sexually transmitted diseases that now pose a growing hazard to the Nationís public health. To address these problems, the goal of Federal policy should be to emphasize abstinence as a certain way to avoid both unintended pregnancies and STDs."

    It seems strange to blame pre-marital sex for poverty, violence and intergenerational welfare dependency. After all, one can be the child of an impoverished couple just as easily as an impoverished single parent these days. As for violence, I would be more inclined to blame the easy access to guns in this country than sex, but hey, what do I know? The solution to intergenerational welfare dependency? Perhaps more job training, subsidized child care and not sending jobs overseas might do the trick. But, maybe Iím just naÔve and it is all about sex.

    Certainly, times have changed since the sexual revolution. Certainly, we have new concerns about sex that we never had before. HIV and AIDS, for example. However, I would venture that teen pregnancy and date rape happened before and after the sexual revolution. I bet they had promiscuity and STDs back then, too. And I donít think abstinence was ever the way of life the Bush administration would like to make it. Do you think George and Laura both waited until marriage? (The President was 31 when he married Laura Welch.)

    Yet, the President is willing to support programs that advocate abstinence until marriage as the only sure fire way to avoid HIV. (What are gay people supposed to wait for? He wonít even let them get married ever.) While the American Medical Associationís National Initiative to Improve Adolescent Health by the Year 2010 includes the goal, "Increase the proportion of adolescents who abstain from sexual intercourse or use condoms if currently sexually active", the government is supporting many abstinence programs by organizations with words like "ministry", "Catholic", Christian" and "Baptist" in the title. Am I the only mother of a non-Christian child who finds this troubling? Programs range from things like Truth 4 Youth which reminds girls that boys still like to marry virgins and sells jewelry promoting virginity to the chastity events which have occurred in California, Pennsylvania, and Alabama where students often pledge "to God" that they will remain abstinent until marriage. Letís face it; God wonít be there to tell them about condoms if they change their minds. How effective is praying not to get pregnant or contract an STD once youíve broken your promise?  (A Columbia University study found that 88% of teens who make virginity pledges ultimately wind up having pre-marital sex although they may wait a little longer. ) What is a girl who is date raped or a victim of incest supposed to do? Will pledging to God save her from ever needing a morning-after pill?

    Forget about the questions of separation of church and state that those programs generate for a minute. Letís consider what education is really all about, which is, I think, giving people useful information where there used to be ignorance. Yet, The Washington Post reported on December 2, 2004 that a study by California representative Henry Waxman found that students educated in federally funded abstinence programs were taught that, " abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus and that touching a personís genitals can result in pregnancy." Students were also taught that a 43 day old fetus is a "thinking person", that HIV can be spread through perspiration and tears, that condoms fail to prevent heterosexual contraction of HIV 31% of the time and that chlamydia can cause heart failure. Waxmanís staff reviewed the 13 most frequently used abstinence curricula. Telling students bizarre lies that seem designed to frighten them away from sex is no way to help them make good, safe choices. Yet, $170 million in federal funds has been allocated to support this nonsense in the coming year.

    The assumption behind this legislation seems to be that all Americans concur pre-marital sex is a sin and that any discussion of it can only lead to sinning. Yet, Planned Parenthood reports that , "The vast majority of American parents support comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education. Seventy five percent of parents want their children to receive a variety of information on subjects including contraception and condom use, sexually transmitted infection, sexual orientation, sex practices, abortion, communications and coping skills, and the emotional aspects of sexual relationships. Given the choice, only one to five percent of parents remove their children from such responsible sexuality education courses." Countries that offer this information to their teens have much lower teen pregnancy rates. According to UNICEF, Denmark, a country which teaches a comprehensive sex ed. curriculum produces only 5 babies per 1,000 teens. In the U.S., the teen birth rate was 23 babies per 1,000 teens in 2002.

    Even fans of abstinence cannot discount the significance of educating students about contraception. In his article "Research Supports Abstinence Education," Dr. Roy V. Maxson, a physician who believes in the benefits of abstinence education cites a recent Zogby Poll stating that, " Eighty five percent of parents said that emphasis placed on abstinence for teens should be equal to or greater than the emphasis placed on contraception." However, those parents did not say contraception had no place in a sex ed. curriculum. It seems clear that while some American parents may view pre-marital sex as a sin, the vast majority understand that it is also a reality. Research suggests that American parents are as worried about their childrenís current physical health and well-being as President Bush is about their immortal souls.

    Kids today have lives that are more complicated that ever. To many of them, marriage looks very far away. Some are cynical about marriage because their parents are in unhappy marriages or divorced. (And if your mom or dad is divorced, but in a sexually active relationship, should you give them your health teacherís number so they can hear the abstinence speech?) Some are planning futures with years and years of education to meet their career goals. Does it follow then that graduate school requires chastity? Many are immature enough to think that pregnancy or HIV just canít happen to them. All of this requires discussion, not religious propaganda. To stop talking about sex and its implications would be absurd. In fact, it would be a sin.



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