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'Stressing Abstinence' Are Fighting Words in N.J. Legislature

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TRENTON, N.J.--Appearing perplexed, Sen. Joseph A. Palaia leaned forward and peered at the president of the New Jersey state board of education as she elaborated on her opposition to proposed changes in the state's family-life curriculum.

"I don't know what the big deal is about stressing abstinence,'' he said.

"Am I missing something here?'' a clearly exasperated Senator Palaia added later, amid the testimony of dozens of speakers at a daylong Senate education committee hearing here last month.

But "stressing abstinence'' has become a fighting phrase throughout New Jersey this spring, as lawmakers consider a bill to require educators to "stress the scientific evidence that abstinence from all sexual activity is the only completely reliable means of preventing ... AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and of avoiding pregnancy.''

For while the measure may seem relatively noncontroversial on the surface, at a deeper level the bill's boosters and opponents imply that they are waging a struggle for the soul of New Jersey's public schools.

On one side is the education establishment, aligned with such groups as the National Abortion Rights Action League, the state P.T.A., and the division of adolescent medicine of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Lined up on the other side is a loose coalition of anti-abortion groups, the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the Christian Coalition, and the state chapter of Concerned Women for America.

The bill's opponents warn that the religious right is attempting to use the issue to gain a foothold in the schools, just as a coalition of religious conservatives emphasized such issues as homosexuality and condom distribution in backing candidates for school board seats in New York City last month. (See Education Week, April 28, 1993.)

"It's a way for the right wing to take over and dictate the materials,'' said Susan N. Wilson, a former member of the state board.

Advocates of the measure, however, say they simply want to return control of the schools to parents, while saving young people's lives in the process.

"We want to get back to [having] parents in control, not a few elitist people in an ivory tower somewhere,'' said the Rev. Frank Cerro, the chairman of the Christian Coalition of Burlington County.

That the winds of social conservatism evident in the abstinence debate should be blowing across New Jersey is surprising to many here.

While the Garden State has joined the rest of the nation in generally backing Republican Presidential candidates in recent decades, it usually favors Democrats in statewide contests. Moreover, its successful Republican candidates, such as former Gov. Thomas H. Kean and the late Sen. Clifford P. Case, have been associated with the moderate wing of the G.O.P.

But a major turning point in the state's politics came in 1991, when, in the midst of a taxpayer backlash, the Republicans won large majorities in both legislative chambers.

The Republican victory gave conservatives a forum that was withheld from them under Democratic rule.

"This is a very small but extremely organized group,'' said William A. Firestone, the director of the Center for Educational Policy Analysis at Rutgers University. "They're pushing it very hard [and] they have support in the legislature.''

But, Mr. Firestone added, "I don't see it being in step with the mainstream of public opinion.''

A recent study by the center indicates that residents overwhelmingly support teaching about contraceptives and safer sex.

On the other hand, the timing of the controversy could be a big problem for Gov. James J. Florio, a Democrat who is up for re-election in November. After falling to the political depths over the tax issue early in his term, Mr. Florio has managed to a degree to revive his standing among the voters. But being put in the position of having to veto a bill emphasizing sexual abstinence for teenagers could alienate those socially conservative blue-collar Democrats whose support he desperately needs to win.

A Flexible Mandate

New Jersey was a pioneer in bringing family-life and human-sexuality issues into the classroom. In 1980, the state board of education mandated that each district, with the participation of parents, physicians, clergy, and other community representatives, fashion a curriculum appropriate to the community. Although the state drafted guidelines, districts were free to follow or discard them.

Within the context of the original mandate, some districts, such as Gloucester Township, adopted curricula that stress abstinence.

Few controversies arose until 1988, when Assemblywoman Marion Crecco first proposed a bill stressing abstinence, which passed the Assembly but died in the Senate. Each year, Ms. Crecco, a Republican, tried to revive the bill, without success until 1993.

With her party in power in both legislative chambers for the first time in two decades, the measure was given a hearing before the Assembly education committee, where it was reported out favorably. The bill was approved in March by the full Assembly on a 54-to-7 vote.

"The issue is one of common sense,'' said Assemblyman John A. Rocco, the chairman of the Assembly education committee. "Somehow it got lumped in with all the pro-choice and pro-life debates.''

And that makes its other chief sponsor bristle.

"I object to people drawing the conclusion that if the religious right is for this, then this must be wrong,'' said Sen. Gerald Cardinale. "Each of these issues has to stand on its own. I don't care who is behind them or not behind them.''

The bill now rests with the Senate, and specifically with Sen. John H. Ewing, the chairman of the education committee, who had been receiving calls almost daily from the bill's sponsors seeking a hearing.

Mr. Ewing questions the wisdom of the bill and is skeptical about some of the evidence offered by supporters about the ineffectiveness of condoms to protect against the AIDS virus.

He is trying to solicit testimony or a letter from former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and other experts on the subject.

Still, Mr. Ewing believes the bill should be given a chance.

"Just because I don't happen to agree with a bill doesn't mean the committee won't hear it,'' he said, alluding to all the years that Republicans were the minority and saw many of their bills ignored.

Life or Death

At the first of at least two hearings that Mr. Ewing plans to hold, more than 100 people crowded into the Senate hearing room, perching on windowsills on one side of the room and standing two and three deep along the opposite wall.

Inside the room and outside in the hallway, allies conferred to coordinate their testimony.

The argument on both sides is framed in terms of life or death.

The only safe sex, the bill's champions argue, is no sex outside of marriage. To convey any other message is potentially to condemn New Jersey's young people to death.

But those opposing the bill fear that if abstinence alone is stressed, teenagers will tune out teachers, ignore their message about using condoms or practicing alternatives to intercourse, and expose themselves to the AIDS virus.

But while life and death are the primary concerns, others keep surfacing--the threat to home rule, a sacred tenet in New Jersey, and the imposition of a specific pedagogy on teachers.

Sen. John A. Lynch, a Democrat on the panel, accused Senator Cardinale of dictating an agenda to local districts. "Haven't you supported home rule over the years?'' Mr. Lynch charged.

Opponents also say the bill represents the first time the legislature would tell teachers how to teach.

Teachers "do teach abstinence, but this bill would have teachers 'stress' abstinence,'' said Mary Lou Arminger, the associate director of governmental relations for the New Jersey Education Association. "Nobody knows what that word means.''

"That is a very dangerous precedent, especially in an area as sensitive as this,'' Ms. Arminger said.

Taking Abstinence Seriously

Mr. Cardinale and Ms. Crecco insist that the proposed legislation would not exclude teaching about contraceptives or other aspects of human sexuality.

"The intent of the bill is to teach abstinence seriously,'' said Mr. Cardinale, who along with other advocates contends that teachers give abstinence only lip service at best.

Abstinence "is given less teaching time than is masturbation,'' said Maria Sumanski, a mother of three from Scotch Plains. She is one of several parents who testified about materials given their children that they deemed inappropriate.

Her 7th-grade daughter, she said, was given a novel that includes graphic depictions of a sexually active teenage girl.

But opponents warn that educators, administrators, and school board members will interpret the legislation to mean that the teaching of abstinence should outweigh all else, jeopardizing the comprehensive approach to sex education.

Sarah Ferguson, a parent from Mercerville, spoke of the chilling effect the bill would have on educators.

"One of the scariest scenarios that could come out of this bill is teachers self-censoring, sticking to safe topics and safe information, and avoiding the possibility of that one crazed parent with a private agenda reporting them for not stressing abstinence,'' Ms. Ferguson said.

Joan Saltzer, a veteran teacher at Cherry Hill High School East, held the audience spellbound as she talked about Andrew, a former student who now suffers from AIDS.

Ten years ago, Ms. Saltzer said, she taught very little about contraceptives. "I wish I had been a greater risk-taker at that time,'' she said. "Andrew wishes that, too.''

"For my students who are sexually active, I will teach them every form of protection and birth control that is out there,'' she pledged.

Pornography and Chastity

Although the bill's advocates deny that they want to legislate morality, their arguments occasionally seem to edge into that realm.

Senator Cardinale, who is also the sponsor of a measure that would ban the distribution of condoms in public schools, recalled a 1979 incident in which a lawmaker brought some 4th-grade sex-education materials into the Assembly chamber. The Assembly Speaker ordered the sergeant at arms to remove the "dirty materials.''

"He thought it too pornographic for the view of Assembly people,'' said Mr. Cardinale.

"When are we going to be desperate enough to teach chastity?'' asked Kathleen Hintze, the mother of two teenagers from Westfield.

She described how difficult it was to shield her 16-year-old daughter from unwelcome sexual messages at her high school, even though she had withdrawn her from sex-education classes, as the state allows.

Ms. Hintze told how a student in her daughter's speech class who had demonstrated the use of condoms was commended by the teacher. She also complained about Planned Parenthood advertisements in the student newspaper and posters on the school bulletin board that, she said, promoted sexual and homosexual activity.

Susan Grant, the New Jersey representative of Concerned Women for America, laughed when asked if the abstinence bill was just the first step in her alliance's attempt to gain control of the schools. "Talk about the slippery slope. We're just trying to hold our ground here,'' she said.

"What happened in New York was a grassroots thing. Parents are starting to wake up and see what is happening,'' Ms. Grant said.

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