Yesterday, Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced his resignation. Horn, a 2001 appointee, oversaw the dramatic increase in federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs under the Bush Administration. Federal funding for these programs, which in the last decade has topped over a billion dollars, mirrors the government’s obsession with legislating morality. Instead of encouraging teens to postpone sex until they are mature enough to make healthy decisions, these programs drill teens with a singular message: Abstain from sex until you are married or suffer the consequences.
Indeed, these programs must teach that abstaining from sex outside of marriage — at any age — is the expected standard of human activity, and that sex outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.
The problem with this “standard” is that the vast majority of Americans don’t abide by it, and haven’t for decades. By the age of 20, 75 percent of Americans have had premarital sex — by age 44 that percentage jumps to 95 percent.
Unfortunately, dealing with reality isn’t the only thing lacking in abstinence-
only-until-marriage programs — they also struggle with the truth. Not only are programs encouraged to tell teens that condoms fail (in fact, recipients of federal dollars may not advocate contraception use or teach contraception methods except to emphasize its failure rates), but a report by the U.S. House of Representatives released in 2004 found that some of the most widely used federally funded curricula exaggerate contraceptive failure rates and include misinformation.
And just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it does. Abstinence-only-
until-marriage programs often discuss gender stereotypes as if they are scientific fact, address same-sex sex behavior only within the context of promiscuity and disease, and, as in the case of the Silver Ring Thing, use taxpayer dollars to promote religion.
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs raise a host of serious civil liberties concerns, but more importantly, they put teens’ health at risk in the name of pushing a particular moral agenda. Teens deserve better. One can only hope that Mr. Horn’s successor will understand the importance of replacing such medically inaccurate, misleading, and biased curricula with programs that provide teens with real information about protecting themselves against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
— Rachel Hart, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
To learn what you can do to combat abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in your community visit the “Take Issue, Take Charge” campaign Web site, or send an ACLU action alert to your member of congress urging them to support the “Real Education About Life Act,” a bill proposing the first federal program devoted to providing states with funding to teach age-appropriate sexuality education that includes medically accurate and complete information about abstinence and contraception.