Responsible Spending: Real Sex Ed for Real Lives

February 18, 2005

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Censorship. Misinformation. Indoctrination. Parents don't associate these words with their children's education, and taxpayers don't expect such practices to be funded by millions of federal dollars. Yet when President Bush proposed a $39 million increase in federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education in his 2006 budget, he asked Congress to do just that. If the president gets what he asked for, the federal government will throw nearly $206 million in the next fiscal year into programs that a growing body of evidence shows are ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst.

Truth. Accuracy. Responsibility. The Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, introduced last week by lawmakers in both houses of Congress, is the antidote to unproven, misleading, and harmful abstinence-only sex education. Federal abstinence-only programs must focus exclusively on abstinence and are often prohibited from discussing contraceptives except to emphasize their failure rates. REAL programs would teach that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, but they would also include information about how to use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and infection. In addition, REAL would require funded programs to provide age-appropriate and medically accurate information and to refrain from using taxpayer dollars to preach religion, a constitutional safeguard that many abstinence-only programs fail to provide.

In the current political climate, the chance that this commonsense legislation becomes law: 0. The chance that abstinence-only programs get a substantial increase: 100.

In a budget that includes the deepest cuts to domestic spending in two decades, including huge reductions to health care programs for the poor, food stamps, and research on chronic diseases, what's responsible about increasing funding for ineffective abstinence-only education?

According to the most recent statistics, 822,000 15-19 year old women got pregnant in 2000, and each year, approximately 9.1 million 15-24 year olds are infected with sexually transmitted infections, including one-half of all new HIV infections. A growing body of evidence shows that most abstinence-only programs do not help teens delay having sex, and some show evidence of increasing risk-taking behaviors among sexually active teens.

On the other hand, evidence shows that comprehensive programs that provide information about abstinence and effective use of contraception can help delay the start of sexual activity and increase condom use among sexually active teens. Yet there is currently no federal program dedicated to comprehensive sex education. Averting the dollars misspent on abstinence-only education to start-up a comprehensive sex-ed program would be the responsible choice.

Leaving the effectiveness question aside, what about truth and accuracy? A recent review of federally funded abstinence-only curricula prepared by Representative Henry A. Waxman (D, CA) found that more than two-thirds of the programs reviewed distort information about contraceptives, misrepresent the risks of abortion, blur religion and science, promote gender stereotypes, and contain basic scientific errors. Backed by no credible evidence, one curriculum wrongly asserts that 5 percent to 10 percent of women who have abortions will become sterile. Another incorrectly suggests that HIV can be contracted through exposure to sweat and tears. Yet, when lawmakers attempted to add a medical accuracy requirement to one stream of federal abstinence-only funding, the effort fell on deaf ears.

The American Civil Liberties Union knows all too well about the blurring of the line between religion and science in abstinence-only curricula. In 2002, the ACLU successfully sued the Louisiana Governor's Program on Abstinence for using federal dollars to support religious activities, including Christ-centered theater skits, religious youth revivals, and gospel radio shows. The governor's program agreed to settle the case and was later ordered by the court to closely monitor the activities of all funded programs and to stop using public money to ""convey religious messages or otherwise advance religion in any way."" Despite this agreement, problems persist. Just last month, the ACLU asked a federal court to hold the governor's program in contempt for using their state-sponsored abstinence-only website to proselytize; a hearing is scheduled in the case next month.

Defending his budget, Bush rightly asserted, ""A taxpayer dollar ought to be spent wisely or not spent at all."" In continuing to fund abstinence-only education and in further asking for an increase in spending, the Bush administration has shown that it is not interested in spending wisely or responsibly. When it comes to protecting America's youth, REAL is clearly the wise choice. Unfortunately, under Bush's spendthrift approach to sex education, it is precisely America's youth that will continue to pay too high a price for government irresponsibility.

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