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Posts Tagged ‘Comprehensive Sexuality Education’

Questions Matt Lauer Didn’t Ask

May 8, 2009

I may have been lulled into a state of complacency by the conversation on The Today Show on May 5th between Dr. Nancy Snyderman, its Chief Medical Editor, and Ann Curry, a host of the show. It occurred the day before Bristol Palin, the Governor’s daughter, was interviewed on Today by Matt Lauer.

Snyderman discussed the prospects of a contraception injection for men that might be approved within five years. It was a very mature discussion in which the two women showed no fear of using the words “contraception,” “intimacy” and “sperm count.” They were talking about sex honestly.

My expectations were high, therefore, when I tuned in the next morning to hear Matt Lauer, normally a tough questioner, interview Bristol Palin (and her dad) about her unplanned pregnancy and the birth of her son, Tripp, whom she cradled in her arm throughout the interview (see video below). Bristol, with the support of The Candie’s Foundation, has become their national teen ambassador, for teen pregnancy prevention.

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The Today Show piece with Bristol opened with a background segment on teen pregnancy that featured clips of interviews with Levi Johnston, Bristol’s former fiancé and father of baby Tripp, in which he hinted that the couple had been practicing safe sex and “it had failed.”

In the interview, Lauer gave Bristol several opportunities to explain her commitment to teen pregnancy prevention: “If I can prevent even one girl from getting pregnant, I will feel a sense of accomplishment,” she said. He listened attentively while she described how tough life is as a teen mom. Bristol’s father chimed in with praise for “the great job” his daughter is doing: “It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he assured the listening audience, adding that Bristol has no time for friends.

It was the next part of the interview that gave me a sinking feeling: a question about the kind of sex education young people should receive in school. Lauer approached the topic carefully. He asked Bristol about a statement she once made that “abstinence [education] is not realistic at all.” But Bristol backed away emphasizing the long-held line long endorsed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy that “abstinence is the only 100% foolproof way of preventing pregnancy.”

Lauer moved into more dangerous territory by asking Bristol if she and Levi had practiced “safe sex,” (a vague term at best). Again, Bristol pulled back saying, “I am not here to talk about my personal life.” I heard her answer somewhat incredulously, because I thought that she had been invited to be a teen ambassador exactly because of her personal life. Bristol answered, “If you are going to have sex, I think you should have safe sex,” but then she beat the drum again for abstinence-only.

Lauer failed to ask Bristol Palin tough questions about teen pregnancy and sex education programs in the U.S. So, I thought of some questions which I would have liked him to ask Bristol:

  • Why do you think teen pregnancy rates are so much higher in the U.S. than in other Western developed countries?
  • Why do you think the rates have risen lately after hundreds of millions of dollars spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage?
  • Did you talk to your parents about having sex before marriage?
  • Did you have a sex education class in your school, before you began to date Levi Johnston?
  • Did you learn only the about the failure rates of contraception in your sex education class?
  • Do you wish you had learned about the effectiveness of condoms, the Pill and other forms of contraception in your sex education class?
  • In what grade you do think teens should first learn about contraception?
  • As a national spokesperson will you only talk about abstinence or will you talk about the importance of using contraception should teens decide to have sex?
  • What will happen if Congress fails to fund abstinence-only education in the next budget cycle?

Bristol needs to answer some tough questions to convince me that she has the courage to really make a difference in the struggle to reduce teen pregnancy. Perhaps as she travels around the country and listens to other teens, she will decide that young people need much better sex education and more honest information than many of them are presently receiving in schools.

In the meantime, 225 of Bristol’s fellow Alaskan high school student leaders aren’t waiting for her efforts. They are calling for more sex education. “During its recent spring conference in Sitka, the Alaska Association of Student Governments overwhelmingly passed a resolution requesting “a mandatory, comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate nine-week sex education course for all high school students statewide.”

Maybe her fellow students will embolden Bristol Palin to change her message and be ready to answer more hard-hitting questions—that is, if Matt Lauer decides to ask her some.

Unsung Helper

April 15, 2009

“Ever heard of Daniel J. O’Hern?” my husband asked over breakfast last week. Before I had a chance to respond, he added, “He was a justice of the Supreme Court in New Jersey and he died on Wednesday.

It took me a second to respond. “Oh, yes, of course, I remember Dan O’Hern, but I remember him best when he was serving as the chief counsel to Governor Byrne.” After a pause I said, “We might not have family life and sex education in New Jersey public schools if it weren’t for Dan O’Hern.”

To be honest, I hadn’t thought of Dan O’Hern since the early 1980s, when I was a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education, which under law sets policy for the public schools. In late 1979, a committee of the State Board recommended a statewide mandate requiring family life education in elementary and secondary schools.

A furor erupted with health officials. College faculty and K-12 educators supported schools’ providing instruction to help young people make informed decisions about their sexuality, and state education associations, conservative organizations and religious groups opposed it, claiming that discussing sex in classrooms would promote sexual activity and that the state was usurping local control of education and parental responsibilities. (See The Struggle for Sex Education in New Jersey, 1979-2003: Policy, Persistence and Progress, by Philip E. Mackey, Ph.D.)

I remember the year 1980 as one of almost constant controversy about the mandate. It was filled with open public meetings, newspaper headlines and revision after revision of the policy in order to meet concerns of opponents. Hanging over the heads of the Board was the distinct possibility that the legislature would pass a law negating the State Board’s mandate, which was its right under the Constitution.

Enter Dan O’Hern.

One morning I received a phone call from Paul Ricci, president of the Board, who said that he and I, as chair of the committee that had recommended the mandate for family life education, had been summoned to the Governor’s office. When we arrived, we were ushered into Dan O’Hern’s office, where for next half hour we made our case for the State Board’s action and policy.

O’Hern didn’t say very much. We touched on all of the important points, particularly one that we thought might be particularly persuasive: The policy was supported by the New Jersey Catholic Conference, a lay group representing the bishops. Church leaders backed the State Board, because they wished to mandate family life education in parochial schools and felt that the statewide policy in public schools would advance their case.) (To show that the conflict over teaching family life education in public and parochial schools never ends, log on to the most current controversy in Perth Amboy, NJ.)

At the end of the 30 minutes, O’Hern said something like, “It’s okay; the Board can go forward.”

Safely back on the sidewalk outside the State Capitol, Paul and I exchanged views of the meeting. We decided that Dan O’Hern was going to tell the Governor that the State Board’s actions should not be overturned by the legislature, which was controlled by the Governor’s party, and that word would be passed to legislative leaders to let the Board proceed.

That is exactly what happened. The Board made some gentle changes to the policy to satisfy members of the Senate Education Committee, then the policy was passed by the Board and went into effect in all school districts in 1983.

But Dan O’Hern had one more role to play in the family life education controversy. In 1981, then-Governor Byrne appointed him to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. After the mandate passed, family life education’s opponents calling themselves the New Jersey Coalition of Concerned Parents sued the State Board, claiming that it had overstepped its authority in requiring family life education. In 1982, the Supreme Court heard the case, Smith v. Ricci, and ruled unanimously that the Board had the right under the New Jersey constitution to set the mandate.

Justice Dan O’Hern was one of the justices voting for the Board; I like to think that he was persuasive and supportive of the Board and family life education in conference with his fellow justices. He certainly had all our arguments up the sleeve of his long, black robe.

In Dan O’Hern’s obituary in The New York Times, the reporter mentioned that among his 231 majority opinions—he served for 19 years until his retirement in 2000—he helped to “define state policies on issues like the death penalty, law enforcement and homelessness,” mostly favoring the views of liberals, but sometimes bowing to the views of the conservatives. In other words, he tried wherever possible to be fair and balanced.

There is no mention in the obituary of the role that Dan O’Hern played in assuring that all young people in New Jersey have school programs in family life and sexuality education.  But those programs, which we take for granted now, might not have been developed or sustained without him.

Yes, I shall always remember Dan O’Hern, and with gratitude.

Sex Education: Forgotten, or Ignored?

March 11, 2009

It always amazes me how frequently the phrase “sex education” is omitted from important articles or statements about reproductive health, family planning and abortion. Sexuality education plays a crucial role in prevention, and it deserves much more recognition than it receives.

Just consider these two recent examples from the national press:

The National Council of Catholic Women recently bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. The ad reproduced a statement on the Freedom of Choice Act by Cardinal Francis George, of Chicago, who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The Act, if passed, would ensure Roe v. Wade’s protections and guarantee a woman’s right to choose. The statement from the USCCB was a stinging attack on the Act, and it included no mention of efforts the USCCB would support to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S.—not even a reference to abstinence-only programs. The USCCB focused on how the Act would threaten “prenatal human life,” rather than on ways that we, as a nation, can work together to reduce the number of abortions. Comprehensive sexuality education provides such a way.

The second example is the Times op-ed “This Is the Way the Culture War Ends,” by William Saletan. Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, presents his solutions on ending the culture wars that currently rage over abortion, same-sex marriage and birth control.

On birth control, he writes:

“This isn’t [about] a shortage of pills or condoms. It is a shortage of cultural and personal responsibility. It is a failure to teach, understand, admit or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation—and the subsequent killing, through abortion—of a developing human being.”

Now you may consider me naïve, but I was certain that Saletan’s next sentence would be about the importance of high quality, balanced sexuality education in our pubic schools.  But, you guessed it, he simply moved on without mentioning any instruction that might help young people understand the concept of personal responsibility about sexual behavior.

Maybe Saletan hasn’t heard a crackerjack high-school educator instruct students about the need to use contraception each and every time they decide to have sex, or if they one day decide not to be abstinent. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that for years and years, young people in the majority of states have only been given negative or false information about contraception through federally support abstinence-only programs.

Perhaps what Saletan wants all educators to tell students is “abortion kills a developing human being.” He apparently won’t settle for educators saying, “Most people believe that abortion is killing a developing human being, but some people believe otherwise.”  A balanced statement like this wouldn’t detract from Saletan’s point that students need to learn about, discuss and understand the importance of taking personal responsibility, when or if they have sex.

To his credit, Saletan breaks with traditional Catholic doctrine by saying that a “culture of life requires an ethic of contraception” and that birth control offers people “a loving, conscientious way to prevent conception…” I just wish he had added, “Public schools with students of all different religious denominations should teach about birth control in their sexuality education classes.” Period.

That would have made me happy—that, and a land where the phrase “sex education” is as commonplace as Mom and apple pie.

In or Out of Limbo?

January 28, 2009

The AP headline “Future of Abstinence-Only Funding Is in Limbo” gives sexuality educators hope that the winds of change presently sweeping the land will finally end our government’s funding of abstinence-only programs, which have cost us $176 million each year and $1.5 billion over the past decade.

Many hope that new policies and funding for comprehensive sexuality education will replace abstinence-only funding and policies. Comprehensive sex ed balances instruction about the merits of delaying sexual activity with medically accurate instruction about the benefits of using contraceptives.

Our hopefulness comes because President Obama is considered an advocate for comprehensive sex education. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the AP: “[Obama] totally understands the need for young people to have comprehensive sex education—they need information that protects their health. … I hope that will be the position of the administration, but when Congress gets involved, sometimes things get more complicated.”

An Obama spokesman refused to confirm or deny what the President would propose in his budget—keeping the funding issue still firmly in limbo and advocates on both sides of the issue on a tether.

Congress has gotten involved in a way that should warm the hearts of comprehensive sexuality education advocates. On the first day of Senate business, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced the Prevention First Act. This legislation would increase access to both contraception and comprehensive sexuality education and support programs designed to reduce unintended pregnancies. Congresswomen Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Diane DeGette (D-CO) introduced the same legislation in the House of Representatives.

Slaughter, who strongly opposes any continued funding for abstinence-only programs, introduced the legislation by saying: “We can’t have both [comprehensive and abstinence-only programs], because abstinence-only doesn’t work. We believe the amount of money that goes into [abstinence-only] would be so much better used on things to prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

Slaughter is sanguine that when the Prevention First Act comes to a vote there will be enough support in the new Congress to pass it.

In his important work Emerging Answers 2007: Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., reviewed 115 programs and found “strong evidence” for the effectiveness of comprehensive sexuality education programs and “limited evidence” of the effectiveness of abstinence-until-marriage curricula.

But before we start celebrating, Sarah Brown, the executive officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, offers a cautionary note.  She recommends that “science-driven” be applied to sexuality education programs, saying that this approach favors comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only, but that, in due course, researchers might find that some abstinence-only programs are effective. (This list of “science-driven” or “evidence-driven” programs is not long and can be found here.)

More and better research about comprehensive sexuality education can only continue to move it out of limbo and into the educational sunlight where we believe it belongs.