Abstinence-Only ‘Sex Education’ Prevalent, Failing New York State, NYCLU Report Finds

September 20, 2007 —  Taxpayer-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in New York State have used materials that rely on scare tactics, contain inaccurate and medically unsound information, include religious messages and leave youth unprepared to make healthy decisions about sexuality, concludes a report released today by the Reproductive Rights Project of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on ideologically driven programs that don’t work,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “While spending millions of dollars on these ineffective programs, the state hasn’t spent a single dollar on age-appropriate, medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education. This must change.”

The report, Financing Ignorance: A Report on Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Funding in New York, chronicles an in-depth investigation of 39 abstinence-only-until marriage programs statewide that received federal funding through 2006.

Based on a review of more than 33,000 pages of state and federal documents, the report urges state and federal lawmakers to stop funding these biased and unsound programs, and asks lawmakers to instead dedicate money to comprehensive sexuality education that teaches students safe and effective ways, including abstinence, to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

“Our students need full, unbiased and useful information regarding sexual health,” said Galen Sherwin, director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. “Only in this way will they be able to make responsible life decisions and grow into healthy adults.”

Since 1981, the federal government has allocated more than $1 billion for abstinence-only-until marriage programs throughout the nation. New York is currently the third largest recipient of federal money for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, behind Texas and Florida. In fiscal year 2006, New York accepted more than $10 million in federal funding -- matched by nearly $4 million in state funds -- for dozens of such programs.

The NYCLU’s analysis revealed that:

  • Abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula used across the state contain serious medical inaccuracies and employ fear-based teaching methods:
    • Curricula used by 22 programs inflate rates of STIs and HIV/AIDS and exaggerate the failure rates of condoms in preventing STIs, HIV/AIDS and pregnancy.
    • These same curricula rely on scare-tactics, presenting a list of dire consequences of pre-marital sexual activity; one curriculum includes in this list: “heartbreak, infertility, loneliness, cervical cancer, [and] poverty.”
    • Curricula used by seven programs contain falsehoods regarding abortion, telling students, for example, that an abortion could significantly endanger a young woman’s ability to have children in the future. Five programs partnered with crisis pregnancy centers, organizations that frequently promote inaccurate and biased views about abortion.
  • The same curricula demonstrate serious bias:
    • Gender stereotypes regarding the different “natures” of girls and boys with respect to sexuality and relationships are presented as immutable, scientific facts. For example, one program teaches that “financial support” is one of the five “major needs of women,” and “domestic support” is one of the five “major needs of men.”
    • Lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender youth are either completely ignored or demonized as “unnatural.”
  • At least 19 of the funded programs focused a significant amount of programming on after school recreational activities with no direct relation to sex education.
    • Instructors were not required to have special training or expertise as educators.
    • Programs were not evaluated, or even required to evaluate themselves.
    • Religious groups received more than half (53 percent) of this government funding without adequate safeguards against proselytizing, and religious content was included in some of the programming.

Since conducting its review, the NYCLU has learned that as of October 2007, New York State has cancelled all existing contracts awarded under Title V, one of the principal federal funding streams for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and it has pledged to use the state-matching funds for programs aimed at pregnancy prevention.

“This is a wonderful development and the state must be applauded for this important first-step,” Sherwin said. “But more needs to be done. Our young people need comprehensive, age-appropriate and medically accurate sex education, and the state and federal government must earmark funds to support it. Congress must further show leadership on this issue and stop wasting taxpayer money on ideologically driven programs that don’t work.”

This report recommends the following steps:

  • Comprehensive sexuality education should be funded at both the state and federal levels:
    • The New York State Legislature should pass the “Healthy Teens Act.”
    • Congress should enact the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act.
    • New York should amend the State Education Law to include a requirement that all students receive comprehensive, scientifically accurate, age-appropriate sexuality education in New York State public schools.
    • This should include -- but not be limited to -- an abstinence message.
    • “Medically accurate” should be defined to ensure that programs are objective and scientifically accurate.
    • The commissioners of the Departments of Health and Education should be empowered to promulgate regulations providing guidance on formation of curricula, teacher training and monitoring and evaluation of programming.
  • Funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs should be stopped:
    • Congress should cease all funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
    • New York should join a growing number of states explicitly rejecting federal abstinence-only-until-marriage restricted funding.