Abstinence Only Education


Kimber Haddix McKay, an anthropologist who teaches Human Sexuality
at the University of Montana-Missoula, thought it would be a good
idea to expose her students to those who promote sexual abstinence
until marriage.

“Since Montana accepts federal money for abstinence education,
I thought I’d show the students what this means and who is
involved in the state’s campaigns,” she says. She invited
representatives from Sexual Abstinence and Family Education (SAFE)
to address the 250 undergraduates enrolled in the course.


content of the talk outraged McKay and shocked and confused her
students. “They said things like condoms aren’t effective
against STDs and explicitly predicted that those who have premarital
sex will have unhappy marriages because people feel insecure when
their partners have had previous sexual experiences,” McKay
recalls. The presenters also cited a specious 2003 study, conducted
by the right- wing Heritage Foundation, that purportedly found that
sexually active teens are more likely to be depressed or suicidal
than their celibate peers. 

McKay says that she tried to do “damage control” after
the presentation, bringing in speakers from the campus health center
and local women’s clinic, she worries that some of her students
may have had trouble deciphering the conflicting messages. Raquel
Castel- lanos, executive director of the Blue Mountain Clinic in
Missoula, was one of the people McKay solicited to rebut SAFE. “In
Montana, like many other states, each school district decides what
will be taught. This means that a town can say, ‘We want comprehensive
sex ed.’ But it’s hit-and-miss whether the kids will get
educated. In one place, the teacher told students that condoms were
50-60 percent ineffective in preventing pregnancy. In another school,
the kids were told that condoms don’t work on teenagers. It’s
pretty rare for rural kids to get comprehensive sex ed. The abstinence
people are so well-funded that they can travel all over the state.
We have nothing to counter the kind of federal money that is pouring

Since 1998, more than $1 billion has been spent on abstinence only
programs, a 3,000 percent increase. Three funding streams channel
revenue to all 50 states. What’s more, the grants have gone
not only to school districts, but also to hundreds of explicitly
anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Centers, Catholic Diocese, and groups
affiliated with the Baptist Church, Disciples of Christ, and evangelical
Christian mega- churches. 

is funding his base and creating an industry and advocates to do
recruitment,” says Adrienne Verrilli, Communications Director
at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United
States [SIECUS]. “It’s part of a broad strategy to start
moving federal dollars into the evangelical community. It’s
a neoconserva- tive’s dream come true.” 

Planned Parenthood Federation of America calls the funding of abstinence
programs “one of the religious right’s greatest victories.”
PPFA has issued chilling warnings about the program’s far-reaching
national impact, pointing out that stepped-up funding has meant
that kids throughout the country hear three consistent messages: 

  • that sexual
    activity between unmarried people has negative physical and psychological


  • that all people
    are expected to live in monogamous heterosexual marriages  

  • that bearing
    children out of wedlock hurts child, parent, and


programs go even further. Peggy Papsdorf, project coordinator for
Plain Truth for Washington, a group that promotes comprehensive
sex education in public schools, witnessed a lecture by Pam Stenzel,
a former Crisis Pregnancy counselor turned abstinence instructor.
According to Papsdorf, Stenzel told a class of eighth graders that: 

  • no one has ever
    had sex with more than one partner without paying a price  

  • birth control
    pills make you ten times more susceptible to death 

  • abortion causes
    long-term psychological damage 

  • condoms are

  • boys don’t
    get hurt by premarital sex while girls suffer for life 

  • large numbers
    of 18 to 20-year- old women are having radical hysterectomies
    because of cervical cancer caused by early sexual activity


message, while extreme, is far from atypical. It has dire consequences.
Advocates for Youth, a progressive Washington, DC-based policy group,
estimates that approximately 45.6 percent of high school and 79.5
percent of college students are sexually active. According to “Tracking
Hidden Epidemics: Trends in STDs in the United States,” a report
compiled by the Centers for Disease Control in 2000, “Teens
are at high behavioral risk for acquiring most STDs. Teenagers and
young adults are more likely than other age groups to have multiple
sexual partners, to engage in unprotected sex, and for young women,
to choose sexual partners older than themselves.” In addition,
the U.S. continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the
industrialized world; between 800,000 and 900,000 adolescents 19
or younger get pregnant annually. 

statisticians estimate that nearly four million teens will get an
STD this year: Chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, human papilloma virus,
syphilis, trichimoniasis or HIV. Half of the country’s new
HIV cases occur among people under age 25 and Chlamydia has become
the most commonly reported infection. Since 2000, says Raquel Castellanos,
Montana has seen a 58 percent increase in this STD. “Although
we do not have scientific research which links the sharp rise in
Chlamydia to abstinence-only education, I believe it’s no coincidence
that in the same period in which over $1 million has poured in for
education that dismisses the effectiveness of condoms, that we are
seeing this exponential rise in Chlamydia among youth.” 

is not the only state in which STDs are surging. The CDC estimates
that nearly one-quarter of women under 24 will contract Chlamydia.
In 1999, 13 percent of female adolescents entering juvenile detention
facilities tested positive for it; 3.3 percent of young women joining
the National Job Training Program in 2001 had gonorrhea. “Many
STDs are silent,” says Castellanos. “We catch them when
we do an abortion or when a woman comes in for her annual exam.” 

Adrienne Verrilli of SIECUS, the possibility that a teen will forego
medical visits because she is afraid to disclose sexual activity
is appalling. “This is a huge problem,” she says. “Students
are not encouraged to go to the doctor. They are told to adopt secondary
virginity as a solution, to act like the sex they already had didn’t
happen. A lot of women get massive infections. By not encouraging
them to go for testing, by not recommending condoms, they are promoting
a harmful religious agenda. It’s often not overt but the religious
message still wiggles into the curricula.” 

Mechmann, an attorney working in the Respect Life Office of the
Archdiocese of New York, believes that abstinence until marriage
is the right message for schools to be teaching. Nonetheless, like
Verrilli, he is concerned about the possible blurring of church-state
separation. “It is not right for public money to go for sectarian
activity,” he says. “The government should not be involved
in funding religion.”

to 1996, he continues, the Archdiocese did not receive government
money for Family Life Education. “We don’t usually get
involved in trying to get government grants because there are always
strings attached,” he says. Then, in 1997, the New York State
Health Department contacted the Archdiocese and delineated specifics
about running abstinence only programs. “They wanted someone
to cover the geographic areas with the most at-risk people,”
Mech- mann reports. “The Health Department told us the zip
codes they wanted us to hit. The ultimate determinant was that there
was money for a program that was working in some areas, so we said
‘Let’s give it a try.’” 

Archdiocesan Drug Abuse Prevention Program, ADAP, received $1.5
million to run abstinence programs from 1998-2003; a provisional
extension for the 2004-2005 academic year was later issued. The
grant has been used to provide abstinence education to both parochial
school students and those attending after-school or youth programs
housed in Catholic facilities. “The programs we’re doing
are secular, but our theology is to teach people to preserve sex
until marriage,” Mechmann says. “It’s a congruence
of agenda between the religious and the secular.” 

congruence unsettles civil libertarians, but to date they have had
little success in stemming the abstinence tide. Julie Sternberg
of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project says that the Supreme Court
has sanctioned the funding of religious organizations, but requires
that monies be used exclusively for secular purposes. “Taxpayer
dollars may not go to the promotion of religion,” she says.
“If a group is using taxpayer dollars, those dollars may not
be used to advance religion in any way.” 

theory was tested in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 2002 when the ACLU
heard that the Community Abstinence Network had gone into a seventh
grade classroom with a video that included extensive references
to God. Parents took action, Sternberg says, protesting to the Department
of Health and superintendent of schools. With assistance from the
Reproductive Freedom Project, corrective action was taken and the
offending video was removed from the classroom. In addition, a teacher
who had told students that abortion was murder was forced to clarify
that under the law abortion is a legal procedure. A similar outcome
was achieved in Louisiana, where federal money had been used to
transport public school kids to anti-abortion protests, as well
as to purchase Bibles and to stage religious plays. 

these victories, lawyers say that it is difficult to sue the feds
for violating the separation of church and state. A paper trail
that connects government dollars to overtly religious activity needs
to be established, says Sternberg. The ACLU is investigating, “putting
out brush fires in local instances,” and trying to determine
if “pervasively sectarian religious groups” are being
funded in violation of the law. 

its part, the Department of Health and Human Services is the government
entity charged with overseeing that religious groups abide by strictures
that prohibit them from preaching or proselytizing. “Guidance
to Faith Based and Community Organizations on Partnering with the
Federal Government,” a booklet published by the Office of Faith
Based and Community Initiates in 2002, offers advice: “Faith
based organizations that receive direct government funds should
take steps to separate, in time and location, their inherently religious
activities from the government funded services they offer.”
Failure to comply, the pamphlet warns, can lead to the cessation
of funding. 

are groups monitored to insure compliance? Although repeated calls
and e-mails to HHS to ask this question went unanswered, Adrienne
Verrilli of SIECUS believes the answer is an emphatic no. “The
federal government has every intention of defying federal law and
continuing to use taxpayer dollars to fund programs that are overtly
religious—Christian—in nature. Not only do these programs
make reference to Christianity, they include anti-abortion messages,
gender biases, particularly as they relate to controlling young
women’s behaviors, and completely exclude LGBTQ youth.”

Verrilli is right, why has community response been so muted? “When
people hear that their kids are getting abstinence education, they
assume that means abstinence plus, not abstinence only,” says
David Seldin, Communications Director of NARAL. “People think
it’s a good idea, generally, to teach kids that they can say
no and postpone sexual activity until they are a bit older. But
the reality of human life for the past several thousand years has
been that that message does not translate into abstinent behavior.
Most parents assume that young people are getting more than they
got in school, when in fact they are often getting less. The issue
remains under the radar screen. This so flies in the face of common
sense it is hard for people to believe it’s happening.” 

Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women’s Law Center,
says that in addition to church-state issues, in order to sue you
have to identify a harm that has been promulgated. “We are
looking for state-based laws that would permit a lawsuit to challenge
funding to faith based organizations and Crisis Pregnancy Centers
that provide inaccurate information,” Stone says. Yet she acknowledges
numerous potential obstacles. “If a kid is taught that condoms
don’t work and she gets an STD or becomes pregnant, who do
you sue? Is it the entity that gave the money to the community-based
organization or the group that taught the class or both? Then there’s
the issue of causation. Did she get pregnant because of the abstinence-only
lecture or because she had sex?” 

a young woman who told her story to NARAL, confronted this issue
head-on when, as a seventh grader, the reigning Miss America, Heather
Whitestone, spoke to her junior high school. “She stood on
a platform in a gymnasium full of seventh and eighth graders, holding
a tennis racket and asked for a volunteer,” Katie wrote. “She
handed the young boy who came on stage a fistful of b-b’s,
then instructed him to throw them to her as she tried to hit them
back with a tennis racket. ‘This,’ she told the youth,
‘is how condoms work.’ A couple of months later the first
girl got pregnant. The second girl got pregnant a few weeks later….
There didn’t seem to be any point in going through the humiliation
of buying condoms. We’d been told again and again that they
didn’t work.” 

like Katie’s don’t faze Leslee Unruh, president and founder
of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a national network that received
$2.7 million in government funds in 2002. According to its website,
the Clearinghouse exists to “promote the appreciation for and
the practice of sexual abstinence [purity] until marriage.” 

dollars have been going to fund programs that give out latex, birth
control pills, or devices for years,” Unruh says. “We
don’t think this helps and demand equal time.” Boasting
5,000 trained abstinence educators, the Clearinghouse is resolute,
bolstered by the Bush administration’s commitment to increase
funding for abstinence education. “Lots of people are working
together and sharing information,” Unruh says. “But the
programs are in their infancy. We need to let them grow.” 

growth—and the concomitant spread of misinformation and hoary
notions about gender roles and heterosexual privilege—terrifies
those who advocate comprehensive programs. “I’m afraid
we are going to raise a generation of kids who have little understanding
of sex and sexuality,” admits Adrienne Verrilli of SIECUS. 

Planned Parenthood staffers are collecting anecdotes attesting to
the spread of ignorance: a male student in California asked his
teacher where his cervix was; a female wondered if she could become
pregnant from oral sex. “It’s so dangerous,” Verrilli
adds. “Rights are so hard to get and so easy to take away.”

Eleanor J. Bader
is the co-author of

Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism

(St. Martin’s Press, 2001).