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'Abstinence Only' Policy Puts Teens at Risk

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The following op-ed appeared in The Star Ledger on January 22, 2008. It was written by ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs.

Thirty-five years after the Roe vs. Wade decision, while control over women's bodies still gets hurled around like a political football, one thing we should all rally around is working to minimize unintended pregnancies.

Each year in the United States, nearly 750,000 teenagers 15 to 19 become pregnant. Unintended pregnancy has a profound impact on women and girls, imperiling their education, narrowing their future employment opportunities and limiting their long-term earning potential.

Society pays as well. The federal government alone spends $9 billion annually to help families that began with a teenage birth.

Sadly, many women -- especially poor women and teenagers -- still lack the basic education and access to reproductive health care that can reduce unintended pregnancies as well as life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases.

Yet, instead of promoting comprehensive sex education, the federal government aggressively funds "abstinence-only until marriage" programs that fail teenagers by withholding information they need to make healthy, mature decisions about sex.

To receive federal funding, abstinence-only programs must have the "exclusive purpose" of teaching the benefits of abstinence. They may not advocate contraceptive use or teach contraceptive methods except to emphasize their failure rates.

Thus, recipients of federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funds operate under a gag rule that censors vitally needed information. Grantees are forced to omit any mention of topics such as contraception, abortion and AIDS or to present them in an incomplete and therefore inaccurate fashion.

In fiscal year 2006, the federal government lavished $3.6 million in grants on New Jersey organizations to deliver abstinence-only programs to students and young people. Nationwide, some $87.5 million is spent annually on abstinence- only programs, most of it taxpayers' dollars.

At best, it is money wasted.

A recent study conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by Mathematica Policy Research, a leading sexual health researcher, found that teens who participated in these programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not. Worse yet, other studies have shown that teens in some abstinence-only programs are less inclined to use contraception once they do have sex.

Abstinence-only programs also conflict with New Jersey's well-regarded comprehensive core curriculum for sex education. Recognizing this, in 2006 the Corzine administration wisely declined to reapply for the portion of federal abstinence-only funding distributed by the state. The state's letter declining the funding pointed out that because of contradictions between the state and the federal government approaches, New Jersey schools might need to add class time simply to correct inaccuracies included in abstinence-only programs.

Though more than a dozen other states have similarly rejected abstinence-only funding, state control over this aspect of public education is strictly limited: Most of the money goes directly from the federal government to the community organizations that conduct the programs in schools.

Cash-strapped school systems like Newark public schools, long straining to overcome immense educational and economic hardships, are all too willing to let these federally funded programs into their classrooms, and it's teens who pay the price.

With one of the highest teen pregnancy rates and lowest graduation rates in the nation, Newark teenagers desperately need quality, comprehensive sex education so they are as prepared as possible to make smart decisions about sexual activity, including when to say no and when to use contraception.

Despite this, the Newark public schools allow the Several Sources Foundation into health classes once a week to present a program called "The Choice Game," a nine- week curriculum that never mentions condoms and that awards students a sterling silver ring in ex change for pledging to remain abstinent until marriage.

If the stakes weren't so high, it would be hard to take "The Choice Game" seriously; evidently, few other New Jersey school districts do. Montclair doesn't have the program in its schools and neither does Millburn, Maplewood-South Orange, Elizabeth or Plainfield.

In fact, I don't know of any other New Jersey school district that is so desperate for grant money or free "teaching" that it will subject its students to this ineffective, insidious program that can threaten students' health and futures.

"The Choice Game" and similar abstinence-only programs illustrate a larger point -- namely, that the young people of Newark and elsewhere deserve the kind of information that will help them endure, thrive and, in some cases, survive to adulthood. They deserve equal access to objective, relevant and medically accurate sex education.

After all, choice isn't a game.

Additional Information

How Far Women Have Come Since Roe v. Wade (2008)

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