Issue 78, Spring 2000
by William Smith
Director of Public Policy
SIECUS (Sexuality Information & Education Council of the U.S.)
In 1996, with little discussion, a provision was added to a popular welfare reform law that established a federal entitlement program for abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education.
This program, Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act, funneled $50 million per year for five years into the states to teach that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects” and that heterosexual marriage is the “expected standard of human sexual activity.” States accepting the money (all of them except California and New Hampshire) must match every four federal dollars with three dollars.
The law was bad policy from the start, driven more by ideology and hypermoralism than by science and sound public health policies. Recent numbers indicate that one in every four new HIV infections occurs in people under 21 and, for the first time in 13 years, gonorrhea rates are rising. Given these and other health concerns, federal funding for a program that has never been proven effective and may actually result in increased unsafe sexual practices is particularly problematic. As a result, abstinence-only is not supported by the country’s most prominent health organizations, including the American Medical Association and other members of the National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education.
The law is also a form of censorship. It hamstrings teachers from honestly answering questions and communicating with young people about issues related to sexuality. On the issue of contraception, for example, teachers are only permitted to talk about failure rates. Any other discussion—such as the proper usage of contraception—is censored. Many young people are left looking to friends, magazines, television and bathroom walls for guidance.
Same-sex relationships are likewise off limits, mentioned only in the discussion of STD/HIV rates. There is also virtually no discussion of cohabitating couples or adults in non-marital relationships after a divorce or death of a spouse, even though young people may have family members in all these situations.
The law is up for reauthorization next year, and conservative members of Congress are already creating a bolder, larger program. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) has spearheaded an effort to secure an additional $50 million for abstinence-only programs over the next two years. Many policy makers are unwilling to speak out against abstinence-only for fear that doing so may be misconstrued as a vote for promiscuity. Even the two presidential frontrunners have embraced abstinence-only, with Governor Bush declaring his administration would “elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent priority.”
SIECUS is working with other organizations, including NCAC, to educate policy makers at all levels—particularly those in our state houses and on our local school boards—about the threat this approach poses to the health and well-being of young people. The voices of civil libertarians, who object to abstinence-only as a form of censorship, would bring a new, and welcome, perspective to the discussion.