U.S. Campaign to Promote Abstinence Begins

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Proponents of sex education programs that focus on encouraging abstinence are launching a nationwide campaign aimed at enlisting 1 million parents to support the controversial approach.

The National Abstinence Education Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, said that it sent e-mails last week to about 30,000 supporters, practitioners and parents to try to recruit participants and plans to e-mail 100,000 this week as part of the first phase of the $1 million campaign.

The e-mail is promoting the Parents for Truth campaign, which the group hopes will eventually involve 1 million parents nationwide to lobby local schools to adopt sex education programs focusing on abstinence and to work to elect local, state and national officials who support the approach.

"There are powerful special interest groups who can far outspend what parents can in terms of promoting their agenda. But we recognize that parents more than make up for that by their determination and motivation to protect their own children," said Valerie Huber, the group's executive director.

The campaign comes as Congress is debating whether to authorize about $190 million in federal funding for such programs, which have come under increasing criticism because of a series of reports that concluded they are ineffective. Such criticism has prompted at least 17 states to refuse federal funding for such programs.

The group hopes to counter that trend, in part with a provocative video that asserts that comprehensive sex education encourages sexual activity by teenagers and a Web site that offers advice to parents about sex education.

"Parents are being misled. They are told the content of the curricula in their children's classrooms stress abstinence and just have information to make decisions in case they become sexually active," Huber said. "But most of these programs provide explicit how-to information that give teens a green light for activities that put them at risk."

The three-minute video depicts a mother of a 13-year-old girl becoming alarmed after learning details about sex ed curriculum being used in her school, including suggestions that teenagers can take showers together and give each other condoms.

Proponents of comprehensive sex ed condemned the campaign as misleading, noting that the "Be Proud! Be Responsible!" curriculum cited in the video was developed to reduce the spread of the AIDS virus among African American males ages 13 to 19. Showering was cited as an example of a behavior that entailed a low risk of transmitting the virus.

"It's a classic fear and smear campaign," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a private, nonprofit Washington advocacy group. "It's absolutely misleading."

Wagoner and others condemned abstinence-only programs as having been proved ineffective.

"We've wasted $1.5 billion on so-called abstinence-only programs that don't work," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "That's why parents want education programs in our schools that do work and will keep teens healthy -- by including information about abstinence as well as contraception, healthy communication, responsible decision making, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections."

The campaign hopes to recruit 100,000 parents nationwide in the first year and 1 million within three years, generating millions of dollars to continue and expand the campaign through a $30-per-participant registration fee.

The projections are based on a 1993-1994 campaign in Georgia that recruited 60,000 members that the group says helped prompt the state to change its sex education programs to abstinence-centered education.

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