Today the Department of Health and Human Services has very strict criteria to award funding for pregnancy-prevention grants.
DHHS awards teen pregnancy-prevention grants from two different programs: the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program and the Personal Responsibility Education Program. The first focuses on evidence-based prevention programs that can demonstrate their effectiveness through rigorous evaluation. The latter allows states to use the funding for programs that duplicate evidence-based teen pregnancy-prevention strategies but the lessons must incorporate both abstinence and contraception. Currently there is only one abstinence-only education program funded under the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program: Heritage Keepers' Abstinence-Only curriculum.
But is contraception education what parents want?
Not necessarily, according to a recent study performed by the National Abstinence Education Foundation. The NAEF's website states that the organization based out of Washington, D.C. seeks to improve the health and future prospects for children and families through the provision of Sexual Risk Avoidance Abstinence Education. The organization believes that such education reduces teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and harmful emotional consequences.
In its most recent study, "Parents Speak Out", the NAEF found that the majority of American parents, regardless of race or political background support abstinence education.
The study debunks common misconceptions related to abstinence education. One such myth is that Republicans support abstinence education but Democrats do not. Researchers found that 76 percent of Democrats support abstinence education while 87 percent of Republicans support it. Another surprise the study found is that not all Democrats support Obama's efforts to eliminate all funding for abstinence education, with almost 60 percent of Democrats opposing Obama's stance.
"The NAEF commissioned this study because we wanted to know if federal sex education policy was in step with what most Americans favor," said Huber. "What we found is that policy makers got this one wrong and they need to make a quick course correction."
At the state level, local candidates weighed in with their thoughts on the issue.
"I feel that abstinence should form the basis of the curriculum taught in our schools, especially for the younger grades," said State Rep. Bill Sanderson. "It should not be a sex education class, it should be an abstinence education class."
Sanderson discussed a recent bill passed by the state Legislature at its last session that according to him narrowed the scope of what would be taught in the classroom by local education agencies (LEA) and teachers. House Bill 3621, also known as Senate Bill 3310, indicates that any county where the teen pregnancy rate exceeds 19.5 out of 1,000 females aged 15-17, as per the state health department, the LEA must implement a program of family life instruction. The bill goes on to note that the program must emphasize abstinence from sexual relations outside of marriage as well as the obligations and consequences that arise from intimacy.
"We wanted to define how far abstinence education should go and not leave it up to the LEAs and teachers," said Sanderson.
Under the bill family life education curriculum should: promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, provide factually and medically accurate information, encourage student communication with adults, address the benefits of raising children within the context of a marital relationship, and discuss the interrelationship and exposure to other risk behaviors such as smoking, drinking and drug use.
Sanderson's challenger Mark Oakes agrees that abstinence is the way to go in schools but does not believe it is the government's responsibility to decide what is taught.
"Abstinence is the best way to go, it is highest and most universally accepted and it is in line with my Christian faith," said Oakes. "However, most people want to have the ability to control what to teach our children, not the government."
Oakes believes that it is families, communities and churches that should lead the way in what he considers to be a moral issue.
"School leaders have a right, a duty and an obligation to determine what information should be given out to students," said Oakes.
School leaders in our community have already taken the lead on that obligation, partnering with Right Choices to provide a three- to five-day formal education curriculum to students in grades six through nine in Northview, Three Oaks and Dyersburg Middle Schools through a grant from the Tennessee Department of Health, and a peer-mentoring program for students at Dyer County and Dyersburg high schools.
Right Choices uses an abstinence/healthy relationship curriculum to empower students in grades six through 12 to make sound choices, which are a key component of abstinence-only education programs.
"It's not just telling students they should not have sex outside of marriage, it is giving accurate information about the consequences of all kinds of risk behaviors and encouraging interaction and discussion about how those behaviors can impact their future dreams and goals," said Life Choices Executive Director Reni Bumpas.
Right Choices was created in 2006 when the Department of Health and Human Service awarded Life Choices a five-year Community Based Abstinence Education grant. The grant enabled Life Choices to create Right Choices and hire three male-female abstinence-education teams that served almost 6500 students in grades six through 12 throughout seven counties in West Tennessee. Despite receiving 100 percent satisfactory approval on all their semi-annual reports, Right Choices funding was reduced in 2009 and eliminated completely in 2010, a year earlier than the original five-year award.
The elimination of funding challenged Right Choices to search for alternate funding and in October 2010, Right Choices joined a multi-state partnership with FRIENDS FIRST out of Littleton, Colo. that was awarded a grant through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention for their peer-mentoring program. Although the funding was not specifically for abstinence education, the elements of positive character development in the program allowed Right Choices to accomplish the same goals of empowering youth to make sound choices.
"Our goal is to continue rebuilding and expanding the Right Choices program so that the youth climate in Dyersburg becomes one of hope and inspiration, a climate that is not characterized by teen pregnancy, poverty and sexually transmitted diseases, but instead by youth who are making healthy choices and looking for opportunities to make a positive contribution to our communities and to our world," said Bumpas.
It's a tough prospect with funding being cut at the federal level but like NAEF's Huber, Bumpas believes that abstinence-only education programs are being challenged to focus more on the science and in the long run it will help create more scientifically sound sexual risk-avoidance programs. Bumpas stresses that Life Choices is a medical clinic first and as such is patient-driven, not agenda-driven.
"Our goal is not to convince our patients to make the choice we would make but to give them information about risks and benefits so that they are empowered to make the choice that is best for them," said Bumpas. "The more students are exposed to scientifically researched information, the more they are empowered to make healthy choices. Right Choices is not about moralizing or preaching, we believe in the power of truth."
Individuals interested in a full copy of the Parents Speak Out survey can access it at www.whattheytoldus.org.