Learning to wait
Denied federal funds, abstinence educators plan their next moves
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INDIANAPOLIS-Seventeen-year-old Sarah Beth Pfister leaves her high school in Indianapolis for a few hours each semester to visit a nearby middle school, where she mentors sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
Her main message: Abstain from sex until marriage. She talks with them about pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and the ways drugs and under-age drinking can wreck relationships.
Pfister is part of a program called PEERS-Peers Educating and Encouraging Relationship Skills-that is one of more than 100 abstinence programs across the country to receive federal funds. The last budget approved under President George W. Bush included $99 million for abstinence education. The Obama administration, though, wiped away funding for abstinence education in its first budget, which Congress recently passed.
That might not be bad if it were part of the federal government leaving local schools alone-but Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, noted that the Obama administration has substituted "a so-called comprehensive sex-ed curriculum that does not put any kind of priority at all on abstinence. . . . It sends the disingenuous message to teens that it's OK if they're sexually active as long as they use a condom."
Many statistics indicate that Huber is on solid ground in preferring abstinence education to other forms of sex education. The American Journal of Health Behavior in 2008 reported that students receiving abstinence education were about half as likely to start sexual activity as students who did not receive such education.
In Indianapolis, PEERS Coordinator Eve Jackson is looking for alternative funding sources to keep abstinence education alive in public schools: "We need to raise funds though personal donations and local grants. We're going to have to raise money from communities within the individual school districts in which we work."
Jackson says her program has "been able to help young people by giving them the tools they need to avoid risky habits and behaviors. We've helped them appreciate their own self-worth and build their self-confidence." That's important in many ways because the same kind of restraint and self-respect that helps a young person forgo sex until marriage can also help the individual avoid drugs, alcohol and other destructive temptations.
Abstinence education advocates are discussing whether to pour their energies into raising private funds as a permanent, long-term replacement to the federal government's support, or to try to influence the 2010 elections in favor of candidates for federal office who will help restore the federal funds. Huber is paying attention to politics but notes that "the strongest model is to get the whole community involved" in providing support.
The National Abstinence Education Association plans in 2010 to do something it has never done-distribute a political scorecard for voters letting them know where candidates in their congressional districts stand on abstinence education. A 2007 Zogby poll showed parents preferred abstinence education to comprehensive sex education by a 2-to-1 margin, once they learned details of the two different approaches.
Whatever happens politically, pro-abstinence teens such as Sarah Beth Pfister are carrying on their work. Pfister credits her faith as a motivating factor: "I'm a Christian, and it's something that's really important to me."
PEERS mentors do not often inject faith into their talks since federally funded abstinence programs must remain secular. Pfister follows the rules but takes advantage of any opportunity to share her testimony: "At the beginning of a presentation, we get to say why we're in the program and why we want to abstain. I always give my reason as being my personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
-William McCleery is an Indiana journalist
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