Some States Rejecting Abstinence-Only Sex Ed

Arizona may become the latest state to challenge the federal push towards abstinence-only sex education. A proposed law would require the state's sex-ed classes to include updated information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

Arizona State Sen. Susan Gerard

(WOMENSENEWS)-By the time Fabiola Pascula's school got around to teaching sex ed, some of the girls in her class were visibly pregnant, their swollen bellies an affront to their teachers' urgings that they forego sexual intercourse until marrying.

“Those girls didn't do their homework,” says Pascula, a 17-year-old junior at Century High School in Santa Ana, Calif.

“They mostly taught abstinence and only told us about a few contraception methods, like the Pill; they didn't give us the big list of types of contraception,” adds Pascula.

California law requires that schools opting to teach sex education classes must offer up-to-date, judgment-free information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, including statistics on success and failure rates of condoms in preventing pregnancy and infection.

Even though California may have problems enforcing the law, an Arizona state senator is urging her state to approve a similar program, arguing that it's the best alternative to the increasing popularity of abstinence-only curriculum. President Bush's proposed budget includes $135 million budget for abstinence-only education in 2003, an increase of $33 million from this year.

The Arizona bill, introduced by Sen. Susan Gerard, would require schools that choose to teach students about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases to give them nonbiased, accurate information on the spectrum of human sexuality and its implications. The classes would be deemed “medically accurate” because the information would be drawn from the nonpartisan federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and peer-reviewed medical journals, says Gerard, a self-described moderate Republican and chair of Arizona's Senate Health Committee.

Like the majority of states, Arizona leaves up to local school districts most decisions about whether, when and to what degree Arizona schools offer information about human sexuality in their classrooms. In some Arizona schools, Gerard says, instructors teach outdated, biased or inaccurate information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including inaccurate statistics on the failure rates of condoms.

Rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among teen-agers in the United States are the highest in the industrialized world, and advocates such as Gerard contend that the reason is that U.S. teens are not getting the information they need to stay healthy.

“At the very least, this bill would require that classrooms keep up with national data about STDs like HIV,” Gerard says.

Sex Education Variable, But Teen Pregnancy, Disease Rates High

In addition to California, Oregon, Missouri and Alabama have “medically accurate” laws on the books and a similar bill has been introduced in Washington State. But enforcement is lax. Consensus on the best approach to trimming rates for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is difficult to reach and the clash of views has resulted in a dizzying patchwork of regulations.

A 2000 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 32 states do not even require sex education, leaving the decision up to school districts. One-third of public secondary schools in the United States teach an “abstinence only until marriage” curriculum, which discourages sex outside of heterosexual marriage, according to The Alan Guttmacher Institute. Other schools embrace so-called comprehensive education, teaching contraception methods and stressing abstinence. As a result, what adolescents learn differs not just from state to state, but often from school to school.

Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher's 2001 report on the subject endorsed comprehensive sexual education that includes information about contraception and abortion, putting him at odds with the Bush administration. A recent report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, “No Easy Answers,” suggests that accurate, comprehensive sex education programs delay the onset of sex and increase contraception use.

The report drew no conclusions about abstinence-only programs because only three programs were reviewed. New preliminary federal studies on abstinence-only programs will be released next year.

A report by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States released last year, however, found that in nine abstinence-focused sex education programs for junior and senior high school students, information was often inaccurate, biased or outdated. Programs exaggerated failure rates for condoms; gave inaccurate or outdated data about the symptoms, incidence and prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases; and presented students biased information about some reproductive-choice options, especially abortion, according to the study.

For example, course material in a 1997 edition book by Sex Respect, a program used by more than 1,200 school districts nationwide, asked students, “Is it fair to make the baby die to pay for a bad decision his or her parents made?”

Senator Says Whatever Information Students Get Should Be Accurate

Martha Kempner, associate director of information and education at the sex education council and the author of the report, says that medically accurate bills allow states to regulate to some degree what local schools teach about sex.

“While the laws would not ensure that all students receive comprehensive sexuality education,” Kempner says, medically accurate programs provide “a good first step by ensuring that all sexuality information that students receive in school is accurate.”

Gerard agrees, arguing that even if students only get half of the story, at least the half they get will be correct.

Opponents of Gerard's bill say it is biased and too broad.

“We want to see medically accurate information in schools, but let's have an unbiased organization giving the information instead of these biased liberal groups,” says Leslee Unruh, president and founder of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, which promotes chastity until marriage and is a leading opponent of the Arizona bill. Unruh describes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an unacceptable source because it “promotes condom use” instead of emphasizing abstinence.

Unruh adds that even if Arizona does require “medically accurate” information in classrooms, what that information is remains open to interpretation.

Enforcement of “Medically Accurate” Laws Spotty

Schools such as Pascula's, where a survey she and her classmates conducted found that three out of five of their peers are sexually active despite the district's emphasis on abstinence, are a case in point. California students continue to get inaccurate and often biased information because the state lacks resources to monitor school curriculums, state education officials say.

Under California law, schools must provide information about HIV and AIDS, but are not required to teach sex education courses. About 90 percent of school districts do teach sex education, but the details and scope vary, says Christine Berry, the HIV/STD coordinator at the California Department of Education.

“Schools are probably not following the law in providing up-to-date, accurate information, I'm confident of that,” Barry says. “The law is clear that you can't provide abstinence only. You've got to talk about STDs and pregnancy, but many schools don't do this. It's pretty pathetic, really.”

For her part, Arizona's Gerard says that teens need help making responsible choices about contraception and what to do if they become pregnant. Requiring medically accurate information in sex education classes is a good first step.

“Abstinence is fine, but we need to deal with the realities of today,” she says. “Kids are having sex and they aren't getting the information they need to make important decisions.”

Rebecca Vesely is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

For more information:

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States:

National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy:

The Abstinence Clearinghouse: