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Freedom Of Religion Sells The Abstinence Message

Feb 28, 2008
This week, the first of the New Year, the Austin American Statesmen comes an opinion by Ken Lambrecht, president of Texas Planned Parenthood, which cites these statistics:

* Texas is No. 1 in the nation for repeat teen births
* More than 80,000 teenagers in Texas become pregnant every year
* In a 2004 poll, ninety percent of Texans agreed that public schools should educate students with age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education

These statistics come from the state that brought us George W. Bush, the Abstinence President.

On the day after Christmas, USA Today's main column cited teenage pregnancy statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The column reported that the teen pregnancy rate, which had declined from 1991 to 2005, increased by three percent in 2006. Three percent might not sound like much, but there are over 750,000 children born to teens in the United States, and 8 in 10 of those are unintended, according the Guttmacher Institute, a New York and Washington-based non-profit reproductive health policy research organization.

This is the record of the Abstinence President.

Under his watch, 14 states have refused to accept federal funding for abstinence-until-marriage sex education programs in their public schools.

I happen to live in one of those states: New Jersey. The Garden State is always the butt of mob-boss and exit jokes, but it is also a national leader in comprehensive sex education policies. Our state was the first to mandate age-appropriate, medically accurate, sex education in all grades - almost 28 years ago! We have gone slightly backward, policy-wise; abstinence-is-best has been the law since 1999. However, rejecting abstinence-until-marriage funding was a step back in the right direction.

I am also a Sopranos fan, and as a long-time Jersey resident, I look for landmarks of my youth on the show. I am addicted to the re-runs, and this is the last week I can catch the first season on-demand. In one of the early episodes, mob boss Tony Soprano sounds like the best spokesperson for abstinence-only, or abstinence until marriage while lecturing his son and daughter at the breakfast counter.

Tony sums up sex education at home in one line: Out there, it's the 1990's, in here, it's 1954.

I'd love to have heard Tony discuss birds and bees with his kids; it would have been the most awkward moment of his life. It might have caused another panic attack.

Not that Tony set the best example, but he wanted his daughter to turn out better than he did.

I believe that's one of the major reasons parents, as opposed to clergy and politicians, support abstinence programs. They want their kids to avoid their mistakes -- and they want the church and the schools to take them off the hook.

So, I'd like to propose a better way for abstinence advocates to carry their banner.

The Bush Administration budgeted $50 million for abstinence-until-marriage for 2007, and the same for 2008. This is the money that goes to the state governments, as opposed to faith-based, or pro-life non-profit groups who carry out the same message.

Why not take that money and use it to celebrate religious freedom?

Every faith needs a congregation, and we should all, as a nation, be opposed to hate crimes against faith.

The abstinence advocates would see better results, while public schools would be free to deliver the sex education their community needs or wants.

Here's why: while it's very easy for political advocates to make health-related arguments for abstinence money, they're not very good at carrying the message to a teen audience. Nor are they effective at getting public institutions to do it. Public school sex educators can effectively convey that abstinence is a choice, and tell students to respect choice. However, it's unrealistic to make it their job to take a position. High schoolers listen to teachers who get them to question and think; the stern lecture never works.

The clergy do a better job of delivering the abstinence message, and providing abstinence counseling. Every religion has its own customs and rules, and some are taken quite seriously by the devout.

Almost everything I read in favor of abstinence-only education shows that it works within faith. It works because clergy, unlike public school teachers, have the luxury of taking a position; they have written works and religious scholars to back them up. Clergy also enjoy more loyalty, and probably more respect in most communities, than public school teachers do.

That's not meant to be an insult to teachers, but there is a reason we have a presidency that has put forth faith-based programs and No Child Left Behind: America voted for it.

Americans take pride in living in a free and diverse nation; freedom of worship is one of our most sacred rights. I don't think anyone, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, would disagree.

We don't need the federal government to impose religious based values on public schools and services.

However, we do need the federal government to protect and remind us of the freedoms we enjoy.
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, Educated Quest
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