While promoters of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives often are frustrated by the slow going of what they believe to be the most important item on the administration’s domestic agenda, they should take heart. Just note the rapid surge in spreading Christian “family values” through another government project that carries a conservative Christian message: abstinence.
Since 1981, the government has put $1 billion into abstinence-only programs.
When Margaret Spellings was nominated to be secretary of education two weeks ago, she told reporters that she believes “the message we should be sending to children in middle and high school is one of abstinence, and abstinence only.” Never mind the fact that, for all the money spent, there’s been little effect on teen sex.
During Bush’s time as governor of Texas, when Spellings worked for him on education matters, he started the “Right Choices” children’s grant program, which gave $10 million to local abstinence-only education programs.
The popularity of abstinence goes back to the early Reagan era, with passage of the so-called “chastity law” promoting restraint in sex. In 1996, Congress added a provision to the welfare law to fund programs that teach abstinence only. Some $135 million a year now goes for such work, an amount the White House wants to increase to $273 million.
As a result, the Christian right has made big inroads in its efforts to curb and ultimately abolish sex education. Less than half of public schools teach anything about birth control, and a third tolerate discussion of abortion and sexual orientation. An amazing 35 percent of public school districts require abstinence to be taught as the only option for unmarried people.
On December 2, The Washington Post reported abstinence proponents were putting out misleading or false medical information, such as that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, that half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that touching a person’s genitals can result in pregnancy.
Today the U.S. has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, and American adolescents are contracting HIV faster than almost any other demographic group, according to both Planned Parenthood and the Centers for Disease Control. The teen pregnancy rate here is at least twice that of England, six times that of France, eight times that of the Netherlands, and 15 times that of Japan.
The White House sees a rosier picture. Jim Towey, who directs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told CNN in late November, “This is a culture change in the way the government provides social services.” He added, “It’s a change to recognize [that] if we really want to help our poor, we want to give them some choice of programs and providers.”
Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti