Teenage Pregnancy, AIDS Spurring Support of Abstinence in Curricula

By Jessica Portner — January 27, 1993 9 min read
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The continuing problem of teenage pregnancy and the growing prevalence of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers are leading many parents, educators, and state lawmakers to advocate sex-education programs that teach, sometimes exclusively, abstinence as a preventive-health measure.

Each year, one in nine girls ages 15 to 19 in the United States becomes pregnant, and teenagers are among the fastest growing populations to be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive-health issues.

While abstinence was commonly taught in sex-education classes, when such classes existed at all, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, contraception became the dominant theme in most sex-education classes by the early 1980’s.

In a growing number of urban and some suburban districts today, schools are taking sex education even further by making condoms and other contraceptive methods available to students.

The resurgence in abstinence programs over the last decade represents a reaction to the existing sexuality courses, according to Douglas Kirby, the research director at ETR Associates, a consulting firm that has analyzed 10 abstinence-only programs.

Beyond Moral Concerns

While many Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants have long favored the teaching of abstinence over contraception in public school health and sex-education classes, observers agree that the growing health concerns are leading members of other groups to seek a return to abstinence-based sex education.

“AIDS and teen pregnancy are moving along in such a way that people are getting terribly concerned,’' said Frederick Brigham, the executive assistant to the president of the National Catholic Educational Association. The association endorses the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching that abstinence before marriage is the only morally acceptable option.

“But apart from the values, it’s a question of health prevention,’' Mr. Brigham said. “We want to have a curriculum to help stop people from experiencing this terrible disease.’'

“One reason that these programs have had a response is that most adults want their children to abstain,’' said Debra Haffner, the executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States.

Nationwide Controversy

The debate’s focal point--when and to what extent to teach schoolchildren abstinence--has sparked rallies, spawned coalitions, and precipitated lawsuits nationwide.

  • The Georgia state school board is poised to vote next month on revised sex-education guidelines recommended by a state panel that would replace the existing curriculum, which teaches only abstinence, with one mandating instruction about AIDS and contraception beginning in the 4th grade. Family Concerns, a conservative Christian group, and members of local parent-teacher associations have opposed the proposed curriculum.
  • Planned Parenthood of Northeast Florida is suing the Duval County school board for adopting the “Teen Aid’’ sex-education curriculum, which promotes abstinence as the only acceptable option. The group contends in its suit that the course violates Florida law, which requires that “all public school students receive accurate, complete, and philosophically neutral instruction on human reproduction.’'
  • A bitterly divided Michigan state board of education voted narrowly last month to approve a nonbinding recommendation that public schools teach children to delay sex until marriage.
  • The Boston School Committee, with the strong backing of Mayor Raymond M. Flynn, is weighing an AIDS-education program that encourages abstinence as the best way to stop the spread of the disease.

The program, “Postponing Sexual Involvement,’' also has the backing of Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones. It gives abstinence a central role, and does not include a condom-distribution element, school officials say.

SIECUS, an independent, nonprofit research group, recently published a report identifying 100 sex-education controversies in 27 states during the 1991-92 school year.

Seventeen states currently require comprehensive sexuality education in schools, and nine out of 10 parents want their children to receive such schooling, according to another SIECUS study published this month.

But parents, teachers, and educators are often split over what approach these classes should take, said Ms. Haffner of SIECUS. Some contend that abstinence until marriage should be taught as the only option, while others promote a curriculum that includes abstinence as one element in a discussion that also includes contraception, AIDS, and sexual identity, Ms. Haffner observed.

“To me, education means it gives you the ability to make choices,’' said Gwendolyn Gibson, a school board member in Duval County who, despite intense community pressure, voted against using the abstinence-only Teen Aid program. Ms. Gibson said she feels an obligation to her inner-city, predominantly black district, which has a high teenage-pregnancy rate.

Teaching teenagers “refusal skills’’ is important, but “if you’re only exposing children to one train of thought, you are not giving them choices,’' Ms. Gibson said.

“Not teaching [about contraception] is about equivalent to a death sentence,’' said Allison Jones, a lawyer with Planned Parenthood of Northern Louisiana. “You’re telling them to go and play Russian roulette.’'

A state advisory committee in Louisiana has issued sex-education guidelines for schools in which abstinence is to be taught exclusively. Louisiana rates in the top five states for H.I.V. infection among 18- to 24-year-olds, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

“You don’t tell kids who drive a car that you’re not going to give them a lesson,’' Ms. Jones added.

A Political Agenda?

Some observers see an ulterior motive in the move to abstinence-based programs. Representatives of some women’s-health organizations say that sex education in schools is the new battleground of political conservatives, and that abstinence courses are their new weapons.

With the abortion debate somewhat muted by a new, pro-abortion-rights Administration, they assert, abstinence has become another way to promote the conservative agenda.

“The most popular vehicle for antiabortion advocates is to put someone on the school board whom they can manipulate,’' said Roberta Stinal, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of America.

School board officials and legislators have come under attack, she said, from people who charge that most sex education undermines family values by teaching about contraception, abortion, and AIDS.

But many teachers and parents have voiced strong support for programs that teach abstinence. In Georgia, for example, where the state school board has been holding hearings to solicit community reaction before it votes in mid-February on whether to drop its abstinence-only curriculum, parents have deluged the school board with letters and telephone calls.

“It is an absolute atrocity for our children to have this kind of curriculum put forward in our schools,’' said Priscilla Carroll, a parent from Athens, Ga. She said the proposed curriculum in her state would diminish the parents’ role and endanger children.

“The teacher says, ‘Don’t have sex, but if you do, here’s a condom.’ We cannot afford to give students mixed messages,’' Ms. Carroll said.

Carol McGinnis Yeje of Rowell, Ga., felt so strongly about the issue that she founded a group to promote teaching abstinence in public schools.

“A lot of the media is portraying us as right-wing fanatics who are imposing their values on everyone,’' said the mother of two, who says that schools should focus on teaching students how to refuse sexual advances rather than how to use condoms.

“We are not trying to ruin [teenagers’] fun or impose morality,’' said Ms. Yeje. “It’s as if people were asking us not to say aloud how to prevent a plague that was going around.’'

Course-Content Concerns

Some health researchers, however, contend that courses that teach abstinence exclusively inadequately address issues of teenage sexuality.

In a letter to the Florida Department of Education, Dr. Frederick Schild, the president of the Florida Medical Association, called the Teen Aid curriculum “fraught with medical inaccuracies and outdated information ... that should not be used as a basis for school health and sex education.’'

In a report entitled “Scared Chaste: Fear-Based Educational Curricula,’' SIECUS evaluated 10 abstinence-only programs and cited “gaps in information, medical inaccuracies, sexist, homophobic, and anti-choice biases.’'

When information on contraceptive methods is given in these curricula, the possible consequences are distorted, the report states. For example, in the parents’ guide to the “Sex Respect’’ curriculum, the birth-control pill is said to have a failure rate of 9 percent to 18 percent, while the C.D.C. places the failure rate for first-year users under age 22 at 4.7 percent.

“Our curriculum has more footnotes than anyone in the market,’' said LeAnna Benn, the national director of Teen Aid, in defense of her data. “Let’s not deny the fact that medical technology is not going to be our salvation.’'

Ms. Benn believes that values are what drives behavior and that Teen Aid provides a framework to address them.

“Parents need tools to discuss values with their children, and our lessons give parents and students topics for conversation,’' Ms. Benn said. Clinicians, not teachers, she said, can best advise students of their contraceptive options.

A ‘Powder Keg’ Issue

Since the Illinois-based Respect Inc. began publishing 12 years ago, its Sex Respect curriculum has been purchased by more than 1,000 public schools in all 50 states. The program guides consist of a teachers’ manual, a parents’ guide, and a student workbook.

The text is filled with such advice as “Pet your dog, not your date’’ and homework projects that include suggestions for platonic outings for teenagers.

Few long-term studies exist on the effectiveness of abstinence programs. According to officials of Respect Inc., a federally funded 1990 pilot study of the program showed that students who took the curriculum had 4 percent fewer pregnancies than a group that was not exposed to any sex-education instruction.

Mr. Kirby of ETR Associates said in a report published last month that “while Sex Respect did affect attitudes regarding premarital intercourse, these effects may have been partially produced’’ by already existing attitudes in the students. Mr. Kirby added that the studies failed to measure the long-term effects of the course.

Increased interest in the debate over abstinence is tipping the balance in the larger debate over sex education, educators say.

Kay Pippin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators, sees the abstinence issue as the “powder keg’’ of the 1990’s. She has watched the opposition to Georgia’s revised curriculum intensify as the school board vote draws closer.

“We were confident a few months ago that it would pass,’' Ms. Pippin said, “but now it’s 50-50.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1993 edition of Education Week as Teenage Pregnancy, AIDS Spurring Support of Abstinence in Curricula


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