Philadelphia played host to the National Governors Association's historic 100th annual meeting last week, aimed at addressing issues of "critical importance to the nation's future." Governors can take pride in the milestone of 100 years, but another anniversary this year is nothing to boast about. This year marks the 10th year that governors have collected $50 million in federal funds for ineffective and misleading abstinence-only programming.
Especially alarming to those who value the separation of religion and state are the reports that some of these programs use explicitly religious messages. Consider the federally funded "Stop and Think" program, which sets as a condition that the presenter and supervisor even in a public school "possess an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ."
Similarly, the Louisiana Governor's Program on Abstinence, before it was struck down by the courts, taught abstinence by relying on biblical instruction on purity and focused on "virgin birth." The National Council of Jewish Women opposes the use of federal taxpayer dollars to impose one particular religious viewpoint about sex on all students, regardless of their individual religious traditions.
Since 2000, all of these abstinence-only curricula are mandated to equally promote all eight points of the federally established definition of "abstinence education."
This includes teaching that marriage "is the expected standard of human sexual activity" and that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."
Abstinence-only programs do not recognize the reality of young people's experiences — promoting gender stereotypes and ignoring the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students, sexually active students, and students who are or have been the victims of sexual violence.
Furthermore, the ineffectiveness of these programs has been confirmed and reinforced by studies done throughout the country. In fact, in 2003, Pennsylvania evaluated its Title V federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and the study's authors concluded that the abstinence-only programs were "largely ineffective in reducing sexual onset, and promoting attitudes and skills consistent with sexual abstinence."
The health and safety of young people is by definition an "issue of critical importance to our nation's future." Governors would do well to consider how medically inaccurate, misleading, and often religiously based abstinence-until-marriage programs might affect that future.
Governors from 17 states have figured that out, and thus have rejected Title V abstinence-only funding — unwilling to expose students to an ineffective and risky program. These folks recognize that the overly restrictive requirements for abstinence-only programs do not provide states with the flexibility they need to ensure the safety of the young people in their state.
In order to make responsible, healthy decisions, young people need — and society has a moral obligation to provide — medically accurate, age-appropriate information about sex and sexuality. Comprehensive sexuality education respects the needs of all students. It teaches that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but also provides accurate information about contraceptive options so that individuals can make informed decisions.
This is exactly the kind of health education that our nation should be funding — effective, evidence-based, and religiously and ideologically neutral.
National Council of Jewish Women advocates are carrying that message to governors across the country, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who now leads the governors association and accepts Title V funding. After all, the best way to ensure our nation's future is to ensure that our young people are well-equipped to lead healthy lives, and make responsible life decisions based on accurate and complete information.
Nancy Ratzan is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.