NPR-Morning Edition (US), November 1, 2004

Texas Board of Education may approve health textbooks which teach abstinence from sex

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The world may be focusing on this week's presidential election, but the business of government goes on. This week, the Texas Board of Education is likely to approve four textbooks on health for ninth- and 10th-graders. The books teach abstinence from sex and do not mention the benefits of contraceptives. That decision has divided parents and teachers along culture war lines, as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Early in the school year, Susan Moffatt(ph) dropped by her son's middle school in Austin to fill out some last-minute paperwork. She walked into the registrar's office.

Ms. SUSAN MOFFATT (Parent): There in the office was a girl going into eighth grade, holding her six-week-old infant. She was 13 years old. She wasn't old enough to drive. She wasn't even old enough to get a part-time job after school. And, you know, I looked at the kid and I thought, if she had had the information she needed, would it have made a difference? You can never really know, but we have to err on the side of responsibility.

HAGERTY: But, Moffatt says, that is unlikely to happen, because the next set of high school books dealing with sexuality are likely to say that abstinence is the only foolproof way to avoid pregnancy. They say nothing about the benefits of contraceptives and condoms. Because of that, says Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network, the books are actually misleading.

Ms. SAMANTHA SMOOT (Texas Freedom Network): For instance, one book says that both protected and unprotected sex are high-risk behaviors. Well, what a dangerous message to be giving to young people, that there's really no difference between having protected sex and unprotected sex.

HAGERTY: Smoot is president of a watchdog group that monitors the religious right. She says that the abstinence-only books, if approved on Friday, put Texas teen-agers in ignorant danger, and not just Texans, she says. The state buys so many textbooks that they become the national standard.

Which is fine by Kyleen Wright, president of Texans for Life in Ft. Worth. She says kids get all sorts of messages about sex from TV and movies, and the main message is sex is perfectly safe. She says teaching safe sex is not information, it's indoctrination. Wright notes that in the current curriculum, kids spend two days on abstinence, then 13 days on learning about contraceptives.

Ms. KYLEEN WRIGHT (Texans for Life): You've got two days of abstinence and then, wink, wink, we know you can't do that, so here's all this other information, a smorgasbord of choices, which are all presented in a value-neutral, everything's-equal manner. And I do not know how that plays in Washington, DC, but in Texas, the buckle of the Bible Belt, that would be considered extremely offensive to the vast majority of parents.

HAGERTY: Marilyn Morris, who runs an abstinence program in Dallas called Aim for Success, believes encouraging kids to delay sex has already reaped rewards.

Ms. MARILYN MORRIS (Aim for Success): For 30 years, sexual activity was climbing, pregnancy rates were climbing and now everything from sexual activity rates, pregnancy rates, abortion rates, they're all dropping over the past 10 years. And the only thing that has changed is that in the past 10 years, we've started promoting abstinence.

HAGERTY: For example, President Bush supports abstinence programs and has given them a lot of federal funding, $130 million last year. Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says a mixed approach works. Teen pregnancy, for example, has plummeted 30 percent since 1992, and studies show it's both because kids delay sex and because when they try it, they know about contraceptives.

Ms. SARAH BROWN (Director, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy): And what that means, in a way, is that people on all sides of this issue can take some credit. Those who prefer these rates to go down entirely by less sex, they've got some evidence that's happening, and those who see much more value in driving the rates down by more contraception, they have some good news to celebrate, too.

HAGERTY: But for now, it looks as if the abstinence folks will be the only ones celebrating in Texas.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's 11 minutes before the hour.

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