ACLU Memo to Interested Persons Regarding Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage Programs

Document Date: June 30, 2005

TO: Interested Persons

FROM: ACLU Washington National Office

RE: Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage Programs

DATE: June 2005 ______________________________________________________________________________

Despite statistics that demonstrate a high level of sexual activity among U.S. teens, Congress has allocated well over half a billion dollars since 1997 for educational programs that focus exclusively on abstinence and censor other information that can help young people make responsible, healthy, and safe decisions about sexual activity. Mounting evidence reveals that these abstinence-only programs are ineffective and factually inaccurate. Nevertheless, in recent years, federal lawmakers have steadily increased federal funding for abstinence-only-until marriage programs to more than $165 million annually. In contrast, no federal funds are dedicated to supporting comprehensive sexual education programs that teach both abstinence and contraceptive use. The ACLU strongly opposes abstinence-only-until marriage programs, which raise serious civil liberties and public health concerns.

While the discussion of abstinence is an important component of any educational program about human sexuality, federally funded programs that focus exclusively on abstinence raise serious health and civil liberties concerns. The programs censor information essential to teen’s health, trample constitutional rights of free expression, create a hostile environment for lesbian and gay youth, and often unconstitutionally entangle the government with religion.

· Background.

Three principal federal programs fund abstinence-only education:

· Section 510 of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. This 1996 law, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), provided $250 million over five years for programs with the “”exclusive purpose”” of promoting abstinence.[1] Funding has since been extended at a level of $50 million per year. The law sets forth a narrow eight-point definition of abstinence-only education.[2]

· Special Programs of Regional and National Significance (SPRANS).[3] SPRANS is the largest funding source of abstinence-only education. In fiscal year 2001, its first year of funding, SPRANS recipients received $20 million in grants. Funding under this program has increased dramatically: For fiscal year 2005, for example, $104 million was appropriated.

· The Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA). This 1981 legislation was passed “”to promote self discipline and other prudent approaches to the problem of adolescent premarital sexual relations”” to teens.[4] For fiscal year 2005, approximately $13 million was appropriated for abstinence-only education.

All three programs require recipients to adhere to the eight-point definition of abstinence-only education contained in Section 510. Grantees under SPRANS must teach all eight points; grantees under Section 510 and AFLA are not required to teach all eight points but may not provide information that is inconsistent with any point.

  • Abstinence-Only Programs Are Ineffective.

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that many abstinence-only programs are simply ineffective. As an independent, federally funded evaluation of the abstinence-only education programs authorized under the 1996 welfare reform law concluded, there is “”no definitive research [linking] the abstinence education legislation with”” the downward trend in “”the percentage of teens reporting that they have had sex.””[5]

More troubling, the evidence suggests that some programs actually increase risk-taking behaviors among sexually active teens. A recent study of teens in virginity-pledge programs — which encourage students to pledge to abstain from sex until marriage — found that virginity pledgers, while more likely to delay first intercourse, are less likely than non-pledgers to protect themselves from sexually-transmitted infections (“”STIs””) at first intercourse.[6] Moreover, pledgers are more likely to engage in alternative sexual behaviors in order to preserve their virginity: among virgins — defined as those who have not had vaginal intercourse — male pledgers are four times more likely to have anal sex and male and female pledgers are six times more likely to have oral sex than non-pledgers. Despite these risky practices, pledgers are less likely to seek and obtain STI-related health care.[7]

In sharp contrast, the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that comprehensive programs providing information about both abstinence and contraception do help reduce sexual risk-taking, pregnancy, and the risk of STIs among teens. Many of these comprehensive programs have been shown to “”delay the onset of sex, reduce the frequency of sex, reduce the number of sexual partners among teens, or increase the use of condoms and other forms of contraception”” among sexually active teens.[8]

  • Abstinence-Only Education Censors Valuable Health Information.

Recipients of federal abstinence-only funds operate under a gag order that censors the communication of vital information. To receive funds, grantees must offer programs with the “”exclusive purpose”” of teaching the benefits of abstinence.[9] Recipients of federal funds may not provide a participating adolescent with any information that is inconsistent with the narrow eight-point definition of abstinence-only education. Consequently, recipients of abstinence-only dollars may not advocate contraceptive use or teach contraceptive methods — even if a teen directly asks for this information — except to emphasize their failure rates.

The government’s mandate thus censors the transmission of vital information about human sexuality and reproduction. And in the schools, this funding serves to force many teachers to avoid providing educational information they consider valuable to teens: a 1999 nationally representative survey of 7th-12th grade teachers in the five specialties most often responsible for sex education found that a strong majority believed sexuality education courses should cover birth control methods (93.4%), factual information about abortion (89%), where to go for birth control (88.8%), the correct way to use a condom (82%), and sexual orientation (77.8%), among other topics.[10]

  • Abstinence-Only Education Endangers Teens’ Health.

Statistics reveal that teens need information about contraception and sexual health: nearly two-thirds of all high school seniors in the U.S. have had sexual intercourse[11]; approximately 822,000 pregnancies occurred among 15-19 year old women in 2000[12]; and each year, approximately 9.1 million 15-24 year olds are infected with STIs.[13] Abstinence-only programs, however, leave teens without information critical to protecting their health and preventing pregnancy.

Worse still, federally funded abstinence-only programs can actually leave teens with inaccurate information. A recent study conducted by the United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform found that eleven of the thirteen abstinence-only curricula used by SPRANS programs “”contain major errors and distortions about public health information,”” including HIV and other STD prevention, pregnancy prevention, and condom effectiveness.[14] These eleven curricula are used in 25 states by state health departments, school districts, and hospitals. Another recent study, conducted by Case Western University, found that abstinence-only programs contain patently false information about contraceptive effectiveness rates, “”inflated statistics”” regarding abortion, and “”false and inaccurate information”” about STD transmission.[15]

Teens need a source of comprehensive and accurate sex education, however. In reality, many teens are not getting the information they need from their parents. As one study found, only half of young women 18-19, and just over a third of men this age, have talked with a parent about birth control.[16]

For these reasons, federally funded abstinence-only programs run counter to the recommendation of major medical organizations, including the American Public Health Association,[17] the American Academy of Pediatrics, [18] and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.[19] Because of their interest in teens’ health, these organizations have advocated for and/or endorsed comprehensive sexuality education.

  • Abstinence-Only Programs Create a Hostile Environment for Gay and Lesbian Youth.

Federally funded abstinence-only programs marginalize gay and lesbian students and stigmatize homosexuality by requiring that no program teach a message inconsistent with the view that a “”mutually faithful monogamous relationship in [the] context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.””[20] Such a message rejects the idea of sexual intimacy for lesbians and gays, ignores their need for critical information about protecting themselves from STIs in same-sex relationships, and creates a hostile learning environment. Indeed, a recent study of Ohio abstinence-only programs concluded that “”one of the greatest flaws of abstinence programs is their inherent exclusion of [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] youth.””[21]

A recent review of the leading abstinence-only curricula found that most address same-sex sexual behavior only within the context of promiscuity and disease, and several are overtly hostile to lesbians and gay men.[22] For example, in its parent-teacher guide, an abstinence-only program called “”Facing Reality”” instructs educators to teach students that homosexuals with AIDS are now suffering for the “”choices”” they made regarding their sexual orientation.[23]

By positioning sex within a heterosexual marriage as the “”standard”” for sexual activity and teaching that STIs are a form of moral punishment for homosexuality, abstinence-only programs undermine efforts to educate students about protecting their health and create a hostile learning environment for lesbian and gay students.

  • Abstinence-Only Programs Unconstitutionally Entangle the Government with Religion.

In violation of First Amendment guarantees, many federally funded abstinence-only programs contain religious teachings about proper sexual behavior and values. These programs violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation between church and state by using taxpayer money to endorse religious beliefs and underwrite religious activities.

The Supreme Court has made clear that “”[u] nder our system the choice has been made that government is to be entirely excluded from the area of religious instruction and churches excluded from the affairs of government. The Constitution decrees that religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice . . . .””[24] Indeed, as Justice O’Connor stated in Bowen v. Kendrick, a case challenging the constitutionality of the Adolescent Family Life Act and its appropriation of funds for abstinence-only education, “”public funds may not be used to endorse [a] religious message.””[25]

Although federal funding guidelines do not permit abstinence-only grantees to convey overt religious messages or to impose religious viewpoints, in practice, many of these programs do precisely that. In 2002, the ACLU challenged the use of taxpayer dollars to support religious activities in the Louisiana Governor’s Program (GPA) on Abstinence, a program run on federal and state funds. The GPA funded programs that, among other things, presented “”Christ-centered”” theater skits, held a religious youth revival, and produced radio shows that “”share abstinence as part of the gospel message.”” A federal district court found the GPA funds were being used to convey religious messages and advance religion, in violation of the Constitution’s requirement of separation of church and state, and ordered Louisiana officials to stop this misuse of taxpayer dollars. The case was on appeal when the parties settled.

There is good reason to believe that these violations are occurring in other federally funded programs as well. For example, the ACLU recently filed a federal suit, ACLU v. Leavitt, challenging, on First Amendment establishment clause grounds, the use of federal dollars to support an overtly religious abstinence-only program called The Silver Ring Thing. The Silver Ring Thing has been awarded more than one million dollars in federal money over the last three years. During the “Silver Ring Thing’s” flagship three-hour program, members testify about how accepting Jesus Christ improved their lives, quote Bible passages, and urge audience members to ask the Lord Jesus Christ to come into their lives. In addition, the official silver ring of the program is inscribed with a reference to the biblical verse “1 Thess. 4:3-4,” which reads “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honor.” The use of taxpayer dollars to fund such overtly religious programs is flatly unconstitutional.

* * * *

Because abstinence-only programs endanger young people’s health and run afoul of constitutional protections, the ACLU strongly opposes their continued funding.


[1] 42 U.S.C § 710.
[2] A qualifying program
(A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
(B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;
(C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
(D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;
(E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
(F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
(G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and
(H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity. 42 U.S.C § 710 (b)(2).
[3] Military Construction Appropriations Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 106-246, 114 Stat. 511 (2000).
[4] 42 U.S.C. § 300z.
[5] See Barbara Devaney et al., Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., The Evaluation of Abstinence Education Programs Funded Under Title V Section 510: Interim Report 1 (2002).
[6] See Brückner, Hannah and Peter S. Bearman. After the Promise: The STD Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges, 36 Journal of Adolescent Health 271-78 (2005).
[7] Id.
[8] See Douglas Kirby, The Nat’l Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy, Summary 16 (2001).
[9] 42 U.S.C § 710 (b)(2) (A).
[10] Jacqueline E. Darroch et al., Changing Emphases in Sexuality Education in U.S. Public Secondary Schools 1988-1999, 32 Fam. Plan. Persp. 204, 209 (2000).
[11] Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, et al., National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults: Sexual Health Knowledge, Attitudes, and Experiences (2003).
[12] Alan Guttmacher Institute, U.S. Teen Pregnancy Statistics: Overall Trends, Trends by Race and Ethnicity and State-by-State Information (February 2004).
[13] Hillard Weinstock et al., Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among American Youth: Incidence and Prevalence Estimates 2000, 36 Perps. On Sexual and Reprod. Health (Jan./Feb. 2004).
[14] United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform Minority Staff Special Investigation Division: The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence Only Education Programs 7-12 (December 2004). The study was conducted at the request of Rep. Henry A. Waxman.
[15] Scott H. Frank, MD, MS, Director, Division of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department of Family Medicine Division of Adolescent Health Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine: Report on Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs in Ohio (June 2005), 13-14, 15, 18-19.
[16] 2002 National Survey of Family Growth.
[17] American Public Health Association, Policy Statement: Support for Sexual Health and Rights in the United States and Abroad, available at
[18] American Academy of Pediatrics, Policy Statement: Sexuality Education for Children and Adolescents, available at (reaffirmed May 1, 2005).
[19] National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Press Release: Content of Some Abstinence Only Programs Criticized, available at
[20] 42 U.S.C. § 710 (b)(2)(D).
[21] Scott H. Frank, MD, MS, Director, Division of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department of Family Medicine Division of Adolescent Health Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine: Report on Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs in Ohio (June 2005), 21.
[22] Martha E. Kempner, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, Toward a Sexually Healthy America: Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage Programs that Try to Keep Our Youth “”Scared Chaste”” 46-47 (2001).
[23] James R. Coughlin, Facing Reality, Parent Teacher Guide 19 (rev. ed. 1998).
[24] Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 625 (1971).
[25] Bowen v. Kendrick, 487 U.S. 589, 622-23 (1988) (O’Connor, J. concurring).

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