Just as Bristol Palin was zooming around the country declaring that abstinence-only sex education was the Lord's gift to schools — God knows it did her a lot of good — President Obama pulled the flying carpet out from under her.
It didn't get much publicity, but when Obama announced $17 billion in budget cuts last week, among the items to be eliminated were several abstinence-only sex education programs. The administration's cuts do away with funding for Community-Based Abstinence Education, the mandatory Title V Abstinence Education program, Rural Community Facilities, and the Compassion Capital Fund -- a religious group through which the Bush administration funneled abstinence-only funds.
These developments give hope to supporters of comprehensive sex education who, by and large, oppose North Carolina's dreadful -- and dreadfully ineffective -- sex education policies. It's too early to tell how quickly changes will come to Mecklenburg County, but there is little doubt that the federal cuts will eventually have an effect, if only because the federal government is steering money toward a more rational approach.
The way the system is set up now, if a state wants to receive federal education funding, its sex-ed programs must teach that abstinence is the only way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancies and STDs, and that sexual relations are acceptable only within a married, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. So much for contraception, changing times, or non-heterosexuals -- those realities have no place in the socially conservative, Father Knows Best rerun we've been paying teachers to deliver to millions of kids.
Initially, 49 states signed up for the feds' program, but some states bristled at the restrictions placed on them by Washington, particularly since they had to put up $3 for every $4 they received from D.C. Today, only 26 states, including North Carolina, still accept "abstinence-only" sex-ed as the price to be paid for receiving education funds.
What really decided the issue for most state governments that "dropped out" was the abundance of evidence that abstinence-only sex education simply doesn't do what its supporters said it would do. First, in April 2007, a federally funded study of four abstinence-only programs found that students had just as many sexual partners as others who had not taken the courses, and had sex at the same median age as well.
On top of that, the nation has seen a rise in the rate of teen pregnancies, while even more research has shown that abstinence-only programs are not as effective as more comprehensive programs at changing behavior. Add to that the reports from the Centers for Disease Control showing that one in four American teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease, and the limitations of the current approach to sex-ed became glaringly obvious. Critics have had a field day, in fact, pointing out that the problems of teen pregnancy and STDs are getting worse, despite 11 years of mandated "abstinence-only" sex-ed, which conservatives swore up and down would change things for the better.
Now that's all changed. On the heels of Obama's funding cuts, his withdrawal of the threat of a federal cutoff of education funds -- and with religious-based, abstinence-only groups knocked off the federal gravy train -- advocates of comprehensive sex education should soon find it easier to be heard in the various states' legislatures.
Locally, as we've reported before, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools' sex education program is a mess. Named FLEBHS (pronounced flee-bus), short for Family Living, Ethical Behavior and Human Sexuality, CMS's sex-ed curriculum is a bit less restrictive than most in North Carolina. For example, it does acknowledge the existence of contraceptives, but it is still far from what the vast majority of experts consider a balanced, comprehensive understanding of human sexuality. In the CMS curriculum, for example, homosexuality, masturbation and abortion are simply not allowed to be mentioned.
Various groups have been working to change government policy, but none have been more outspoken, nor given the cause more stature, than the American Medical Association. The AMA's official position is that "It is unethical to censor vital life-saving information from people who need it. American teens deserve medically accurate, realistic, and honest information about sex. Anything less in the era of HIV and AIDS is not only naive and misguided, but also irresponsible and dangerous." Finally, we also have a government in place that thinks along the same lines.
In addition to eliminating abstinence-only funding, the Obama administration budget also proposes a new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative to support community-based and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence-based, i.e., realistic models. These changes will sit well with most North Carolina parents, assuming there are parallel changes in state and local policies. A 2005 statewide survey of more than 1,300 N.C. public-school parents found that a majority of them think schools should teach students about the use of birth control methods, including where to get condoms and how to use them; testing for HIV/AIDS and other STDs; and homosexuality.
It's past time for our state legislators to heed those parents, as well as the majority of experts, and change the state's archaic programs that, over and over, have been shown to have next to zero impact on teens' behaviors -- and that can increase risk because students are denied information on such a vital subject.