Abstinence-only campaign seeks local funds
Safe sex advocates say education also important tool for prevention

A Durango Life Foundation fund-raising baby bottle collects proceeds near the cash register in a downtown Durango business recently./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

W hen Durango resident Kelly Ryan first saw the baby bottle on the counter of a local coffee shop last month, she figured it was a fund-raiser for an infant in need of medical help. Upon closer inspection, she saw the label was soliciting donations for "Teen Pregnancy Prevention & Abstinence Education."

"It sounds so innocuous when you read it," Ryan says. "No one wants pregnant teens, and abstinence is a good thing to teach. I was shocked at the wording on the bottle when I figured out it was coming from the 'abstinence-only' perspective."

If "abstinence" is the common ground in the high voltage arenas of sex education, birth control and family planning, then "only" is the short that causes the spark. It is the gulf that divides people who believe that knowledge is power and those who believe that knowledge is dangerous.

"Abstinence-only is based in fear," Ryan, a student teacher, continues. "We should put more faith in our students to understand comprehensive sexual education. What if abstinence doesn't work? Do we want them to have no information?"

Ryan and a friend, Elizabeth Shank, talked to the shop's owner about taking the bottle down. "We said, as paying customers, that we were offended by the baby bottle," said Shank. "Besides, if this group is receiving all this money in federal grants, why do they need to do fund raising?"

However, the bottle stayed, and Shank said that the owner explained that the bottle was a way to bring people together in a community forum to discuss the issue. However, when the women asked if they could counter by putting out brochures from Planned Parenthood on safe sex, their request was denied.

"We were told we couldn't put our information on the counter," she said.

A program called 'Reality'

Abstinence in the United States has become a bit of a business over the last 20 years or so. Last week marked the 20 th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's "Global Gag Order." The policy, which was rescinded by President Clinton and reinstated by George W. Bush, prohibits U.S. dollars and contraceptive supplies from going to

Elizabeth Shank, left, and Kelly Ryan
hold one of the baby bottles that have been displayed in local establishments by the Durango Life Foundation. Both women are advocates for abstinence as
long as it’s in conjunction with other
prevention and safe sex
education./Photo by Todd Thompson.

any international family planning program that provides abortions or counsels women about their reproductive health options. That opened the door for abstinence-only family planning programs to rake in the grants. As the policy emigrated home, abstinence-only education grants became available to faith-based initiatives around the country.

Colorado received $2.4 million in federal funding for abstinence-only programs in fiscal year 2003. In January, the Colorado Abstinence Education Program awarded $407,000 to eight programs across the state, with $64,890 going to the Durango-based Family Life Center, the sponsors of the baby bottle. This equates to $175 every day for a year.

Johnnye Hooper, executive director of the Family Life Center, said the federal money "is to educate students in the area with character-building qualities. The program is called 'Reality.'"

Asked about the baby bottles, Hooper said they were "a separate fund-raising project" for the Family Life Center, an umbrella organization for a variety of groups including the Pregnancy Center, which provides pregnancy counseling opposed to abortion. She said her group does not want to change local sex education curriculum but that it continues to advocate representation of its viewpoint in the schools.

Joelle Riddle, director of the Durango Planned Parenthood, says that Planned Parenthood always emphasizes abstinence first but takes issue when it is the only viewpoint offered. "We have a common goal with the Pregnancy Center to prevent unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections," she said. "The difference is that we choose to educate not only on abstinence but also to provide the tools of prevention."

Not surprisingly, this battle to win the hearts and/or minds of teen-agers is a separate front in the endlessly churning "pro-life/pro-choice" friction. After decades of increasing influence in state and federal affairs, the "abstinence-only" movement no longer portends moral neutrality. If anything, the movement has expanded the definition of abstinence to mean "abstinence-only-until-marriage," an ever loftier goal.

Though it is agreed by all that teen-age abstinence is a noble cause, young Hamlet might find it a custom more honored in the breach than the observance. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of high school students report sexual activity , thus the common wisdom in high school sex education has been to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Tools for prevention

Colorado State Law does not require sex education in public schools, but it allows local districts to offer it with two caveats: It shall give primary emphasis to abstinence and parents can always opt their children out. Durango School District 9-R has a required health curriculum that devotes a total of six weeks to sex-ed, two weeks each in sixth, eighth, and 10th grade.

"(The Family Center) has been told that the district will not endorse any one program, but that they may be invited to be guest speakers as part of a balanced health curriculum just as teachers may invite Planned Parenthood representatives to be guest speakers," said District 9-R Public Information Director Deborah Uroda. "We encouraged them to meet with principals and school parent committees to make a presentation85 ."

The real sex-ed takes place at Durango High School in 10th grade. The health class spends seven days covering the reproductive system, sexually transmitted infections, and conception and pregnancy. The teachers use guest speakers to present different viewpoints on contraception awareness and abstinence-only. Uroda said that in the past, presentations have been made by both the Family Center and Planned Parenthood.

This may be the only seven hours in the student's life that people talk frankly about sex. According to a 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation study, 80 percent of Americans favor comprehensive sex education in the schools, possibly because parents feel uncomfortable teaching it in the home.

During an informal survey of six groups of local high school students done for this story, all groups generally agreed that abstinence-only education was all they needed. However, most privately agreed that nonabstinence education also is useful, and about a third wished they had learned more. A select few remarked that sex-ed was wrong or sucked. No one said they turned to their parents for information, and several individuals reported that oral sex was still abstinence.

"That's the problem," says Riddle. "They need age-appropriate medically-accurate information. Without information, they don't know that they can transmit infection. Adolescents are not confused by more information. They can learn about abstinence and also learn the tools they need if they are not abstinent."

Meanwhile the word is out on the baby bottles. Megan Klomps, a Planned Parenthood counselor, saw one in her bank and arranged a meeting with the bank president. "They were very receptive," Klomps said. "They had already received a complaint from a nurse and agreed to remove the bottle. It was a concern to me that they supported abstinence only. It's important to have accurate information available to everyone."

However, back at the coffee shop, Ryan and Shank have been as yet unsuccessful in their campaign. Nor have they succeeded in placing educational information nearby. But they are not giving up. "You can't teach children to 'Just Say No,'" said Shank. "You have to give them more information and treat them like adults."





News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index