WASHINGTON, D.C. - On Tuesday, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Ca. 6th) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act - H.R. 1551 on the House side; S. 611 on the Senate side - which would establish the first federal grant program for comprehensive sex education.
Both legislators have introduced similar bills before, but this is the first time since Republicans took over Congress in '94 that they really think they've got a chance to pass it - and it's certainly needed.
The House version isn't online yet, but the Senate version has some of the most intelligent, sex-positive language we're likely to see for a long time, so it's not hard to guess who's already up in arms about it.
For instance, one congressional "finding" states, "There is no evidence that federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are effective in stopping or delaying teen sex. A recent, congressionally mandated evaluation of federally funded abstinence-only programs by Mathematica Policy Research found that these programs have no beneficial impact on whether young people abstain, when they first have sex, or their number of sexual partners.."
Other findings include the fact that teen pregnancy is once again on the rise, after several years of decline "primarily ... because of increased and more effective contraceptive use among sexually active teens.... The decline in the teen birthrate between 1991 and 2004 resulted in saving taxpayers $6,700,000,000 in associated health care, child welfare, and other such costs in 2004 alone, reducing the cost to taxpayers. Investing in effective programs that improve teen sexual behavior by delaying sexual activity, improving contraceptive use among teens, and reducing teen pregnancies would contribute to reducing the taxpayer costs associated with teen childbearing."
There's lots more where that came from, including statistics on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), echoing the recent stats released for the Washington, D.C. area .
"Although African-American adolescents ages 13 through 19 represent only 17 percent of the adolescent population in the United States, they accounted for 70 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases reported among teens in 2005," the "findings" say. "Latino adolescents ages 13 through 19 accounted for 17 percent of AIDS cases among teens, the same as their proportion of the U.S. population in 2005. Although Latinos ages 20 through 24 represent only 18 percent of the young adults in the United States, they accounted for 22 percent of the new AIDS cases in 2005."
What the REAL Act will do is provide multi-year funding to eligible states to put in place sex educations programs that, while stressing abstinence (which even Bristol Palin recently admitted teens don't follow), also provide information on contraceptives to reduce pregnancy and STIs, encourage frank discussion of sex within families, and teach teens how to make responsible decisions about sex: How to avoid unwanted advances and sexual violence; how to develop healthy relationships; how drug and alcohol use can affect such decisions and relationships - and it leaves religion out of the discussion, which most existing abstinence programs are steeped in. It also establishes evaluation programs for the various sex-ed courses to see how well they're working.
That such programs are long overdue has been evident for years, and during the early years of this century, the problems have gotten measurably worse. While the bill cites pregnancy figures from 2005, a recent Washington Post article noted that, "Nationally, the birthrate among 15-to-19-year-olds rose 1.4 percent from 2006 to 2007, continuing a climb that began a year earlier. The rate jumped 3.4 percent from 2005 to 2006, reversing what had been a 14-year decline."
Also troubling are the effects of years of "abstinence education," which reputable scientific studies have shown to be an utter failure in keeping teens from experimenting with sex - often oral and anal so they can claim to continue to be "virgins" - and in preventing the increase in STIs. The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that while the birth rate in the U.S. for all women rose slightly, "births to unwed mothers reached an all-time high of about 40 percent, continuing a trend begun years ago. More than three-quarters of these women were 20 or older" - likely another effect of simply trying to teach, "Just say 'no'." (And by the way: "Among the states, Utah continued to have the highest birth rate.")
As expected, conservative religious organizations have already begun attacking the bill. Brent Bozell's CNSNews (formerly Christian News Service) tried to pin the bill's supporters down as to at just what age students in public schools should begin receiving sex ed, since the bill itself refers simply to "age appropriate" sex ed.
"You can't say specific age, per say," replied James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth. "You're talking about a curriculum. Every curriculum is determined by the local community. There is no national sex education curriculum that gets introduced in every local community."
"When you're talking about the younger grades in school it's really about 'safe touch, bad touch'," he continued. "It's about keeping young people safe. Then you move through emotions and the like. In middle school is where you're really talking about contraception and the like. The earlier stages in health education are really about puberty and educating young people about their own feelings and a real emphasis on safety."
Family Research Council also weighed in against the measure.
"Unlike its name suggests, the 'Responsible Education about Life' (REAL) Act would pump millions of dollars into federal grants for 'abstinence plus' programs, which are heavy on contraception and light on abstinence," charged FRC president Tony Perkins. "Not surprisingly, both NARAL and Planned Parenthood are lobbying on behalf of the bill. And why not? When the contraception pushed in these programs fails - as it will - a new generation of abortion customers will be born... Capitol Hill is busy promoting comprehensive sex education without taking a comprehensive look at the emotional and psychological risks of sex."
FRC will be sponsoring a lecture on "the teen sex craze" at its Washington headquarters next Wednesday at 11 a.m., which is open to the public and will also be webcast live.
Even Pope Benedict XVI has added his two cents to the issue. During a visit this week to the African nation of Cameroon, he described the HIV/AIDS epidemic as "a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem."
However, observed biology professor P.Z. Myers, "Consistent condom use is associated with a reduction in the incidence of HIV infection of approximately 80%. It does not increase the problem."
"I know the Catholic church is reliant on the denial of human nature, something demonstrated regularly by the activities of its own priests, but at some point they have to recognize a simple reality: people like to have sex," Myers continued on his blog. "You aren't going to talk them out of it without warping their psychology in a truly pathological way (again, witness the Catholic priesthood), but you might be able to get them to practice sex in a way that protects their health. Claiming that condoms increase the problem is disinformation and outright quackery - it's a lie that will kill people. That is what the pope is doing on his little tour, spreading lies, doing harm, and setting back efforts to materially help the afflicted."
The Washington Post agreed, noting in an editorial, "The late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, 'Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.' This holds true even for the pope... In a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships. But the world isn't perfect - and neither is Pope Benedict's pronouncement on the effectiveness of condoms in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The evidence says so."
However, perhaps the best reason for promoting real sex education can be found on reactionary right website WorldNetDaily.com, in an article titled, "Teens' abortion technique: Drink poisonous mixture ."
According to the (unverified) report, "Some teens in rural America are now self-inducing abortions with chemicals intended to abort livestock... Cases have been documented in at least three rural Wisconsin counties ... The drugs, kept on farms for management of livestock under the names Prostaglandins, Cystorelin, Factrel, Gonadorelin or Lutalyse, were being ingested orally in large quantities, even though animals are treated by injection, the alert said. Besides resulting in the death of the unborn baby, other complications that could ensue include infections, blood loss and even death."