Message to Congress: Just Say No

Unbelievably, late last week, the conference committee on the Labor and Health appropriations bill agreed to the Bush administration's request for more money for abstinence-only-until-marriage education. The new total in the reconciled appropriations bill is $141 million, $28 million more than it was this year.

From a press release from SIECUS:

This money can only be spent on programs that teach abstinence-only-until-marriage and are subject to heavy restrictions. For example, any program that receives CBAE funds has to teach that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

CBAE is one of three federal funding streams for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Combined, these revenue sources have given more than $1 billion in federal funds to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs since their inception. The last two Republican-led sessions of Congress did not increase funding for these initiatives. The $28 million increase proposed under the current bill would be the second largest increase for these programs in history.

This proposed increased is despite the fact that the Bush administration's own study found that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs did not increase the average age that students began to have sexual intercourse. It is despite the fact that in August the British Medical Journal published an article reviewing 13 abstinence-only-until-marriage programs with data on almost 16,000 students. No program affected the incidence of unprotected vaginal intercourse, the number of partners, condom use or sexual initiation -- and one program actually increased STDs, pregnancies, and sexual frequency.

But I will let others make the public health arguments for why young people need comprehensive sexuality education, not abstinence only education. It is my theological commitment to truth telling that calls me to speak out against abstinence-only- until-marriage programs and for comprehensive sexuality education. Surely we can all agree that programs must be age-appropriate, medically accurate, and truthful. Education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than programs based on incomplete information, fear, and shame.

It is time for the Congress to just say no. Just say no to programs that don't provide full information to young people. Just say no to programs that teach young people that having sex before marriage causes psychological and physical harm (yes, that's the federal requirement) even though 95 percent of Americans have sex before marriage, most without such dire consequences. Just say no to programs that cause young people to feel shameful or fearful of their sexuality. Just say no to programs that assume all young people will grow up to live in heterosexual marriages.

The fact is that programs that teach abstinence exclusively and withhold information about pregnancy and STD prevention fail our nation's young people - and to this minister and mother of teenagers, that's what is harmful and immoral.