Why Is the Religious Right Obsessed With Other People's Sex Lives?
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Finally, the policymaking infrastructure is in place. Members of the Pro-Life Caucus in Congress remain powerful enough to influence their Democratic colleagues on key legislative votes, even to influence liberals to support programs they disagree with. Abstinence-only’s infrastructure was further strengthened when curriculum designer and executive director of the Abstinence and Marriage Partnership, Scott Phelps, founded a D.C. lobbying group and trade association, the National Abstinence Education Association in 2006 with Valerie Huber as its Executive Director. This group has become the centralized voice of abstinence-only education: state-level coalitions of community-based groups, most of which are crisis pregnancy centers with abstinence-only programs, feed into the national organization and depend upon it for marketing the message of abstinence.
On the other side, groups like the 140- member National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education and its leadership at SIECUS have worked hard for years to counter the misleading claims of abstinence-only spokespeople, and their levelheaded influence must be acknowledged.
And in opposition to pro-abstinence education lobbyists, Rep. Barbara Lee (D- CA), Christopher Shays (R-CT), and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have sponsored the Responsible Education for Life Act (REAL), which is intended to counter the Bush administration’s success in establishing abstinence-only education as the only federally sanctioned sexuality education. This would reflect the results of a 2004 poll that showed parents supporting comprehensive sexuality education, including 94 percent supporting teaching about contraception and pregnancy prevention. Hopes for passage of this bill remain high, although the current legislation has gone nowhere since March of 2007.
Other members of Congress, like the California Democrat Henry Waxman, have been leaders in criticizing federal support for abstinence-only education, and the first Congressional hearing on federal funding for such programs took place in April 2008. Abstinence advocate Stan Weed was the only witness identified by the Republican minority to defend the science of abstinence-only education. His testimony focused not on the success of abstinence-only programs but on the methodological limitations of evaluations of comprehensive sexuality education curricula. When he was accompanied by a lobbyist, Valerie Huber from the National Abstinence Education Association, rather than another researcher, he looked especially vulnerable.
Along with a counteroffensive from a Democratic Congress, the campaign faces a loss of its federal leaders. Wade Horn, former assistant secretary at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, best known as the Bush administration’s architect of marriage promotion as a solution to poverty, was the administration’s chief supporter of abstinence-only education. He now works in the private sector for Deloitte.
In 2005, Karl Rove brought to HHS a fierce welfare reformer and anti-abortion and pro-abstinence official, Claude Allen, who targeted comprehensive sexuality education groups and arranged for Advocates for Youth, a premier progressive sexuality education organization, to be audited multiple times. Allen lasted just over a year, before being arrested for theft related to a petty fake refund scam of retailers.
Leslee Unruh, head of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, was a teen mother herself and the founder of Alpha crisis pregnancy center in South Dakota. She spearheaded the 2006 campaign to ban all abortions in that state. However, according to William Smith, her shrill TV presence may have made her a liability for the abstinence-only cause.
Despite these promising changes at the national level, abstinence-only education continues to be powered through strong support at the state level from state and local politicians, and abstinence-only coalitions marketing their perspective to parents and school personnel. Liberal strategies promoting state versions of the REAL Act, supporting well-informed, responsible teens through comprehensive sexuality education, are thus as vital as vigilance in the nation’s Capitol.