Just say no — to federal money for abstinence education.
A coalition of six organizations is calling for Kentucky health departments to reject $820,000 in federal money spent annually to promote saving sex for marriage, saying that abstinence education is not the answer for youth.
The coalition's plea comes at a time when teen sex is in the news, with a vice presidential candidate's pregnant teen daughter on stage at the recent Republican National Convention and and pop star purity rings being mocked at the Video Music Awards last week.
The group, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood of Kentucky, supports what it terms "medically accurate sexual education," which includes information about contraceptives. The group says abstinence programs are fear-based, promote gender stereotypes and aren't effective.
"One of the biggest problems is that we know teens are having sex, regardless of what message is being presented to them," said Derek Selznick, reproductive-freedom project director for Kentucky's ACLU. "We want teens to make responsible decisions about their sexual lives."
The newly formed group is still in discussion about how to get the message out, Selznick said.
The federal dollars come with the condition that only abstinence be taught. And Greg Williams, director of Heritage of Kentucky, a Lexington-based non-profit focused on abstinence education, argues that according to his math, when you add up all the federal dollars that go to AIDS prevention programs and other health-related programs that promote contraception, the money spent on abstinence programs is relatively small.
Abstinence programs took root in the mid-1990s when, as part of welfare reform, federal dollars became available.
"It was the first time that large-scale funding for healthy relationship and abstinence education was being done," he said. Telling teens about contraceptives simply "opens a Pandora's box" and muddles the abstinence message, he said.
But do abstinence methods work?
Nationally, teen birth rates declined 34 percent since peaking in 1991. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen birth rates rose between 2005 and 2006. The birth rate for teenagers ages 15 to 19 rose 3 percent, from 40.5 live births per 1,000 in 2005 to 41.9 births per 1,000 in 2006.
In Kentucky, which traditionally has a higher teen birth rate than the nation as a whole, the increase was 6.6 percent.
With Kentucky's teen pregnancy rate already 19 percent higher than the nation at 49.2 births per 1,000 in 2006, that trend has some sex educators concerned.
According to this summer's report by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, cited by the ACLU's Selznick, governors in 25 states have recognized that abstinence education doesn't work and have rejected Title V money.
Finding basic information about what's being taught to Kentucky teens is difficult.
There is confusion about what could be offered other than abstinence-only programs. Shirley Jones, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Kentucky, said her organization's sex ed programs include talk of abstinence but also information about how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
And there is some misunderstanding about what is being taught in Kentucky schools, said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.
"It's kind of an urban legend" that Kentucky schools are required to teach abstinence-only sex education programs, she said. The state doesn't mandate what kind of sex education is being taught — and there is no law — and the state doesn't track what individual school districts require.
The Kentucky School Boards Association doesn't keep statistics on sex education programs, Gross said.
There are groups, including Planned Parenthood, that could provide comprehensive medically based sex education to schools, Selznick and Jones said. But they must be invited by the schools, and that rarely happens in Kentucky, they said.
Williams' organization has taken a multi-day abstinence course to 25,000 students in 18 to 20 school districts, he said.
In Fayette County, the Lexington Fayette County Health Department receives Title V money and uses it to teach abstinence-only programs in middle and elementary schools, said Elayne Hollinger, the department's abstinence coordinator. But, she said, other money is used for sexuality education that includes family planning in some high schools.
Losing the Title V funding, she said, "would be a travesty." In some counties, she said, Title V funding provides the only sex education available.
Both sides say they have statistics on their side.
"Abstinence works every time a kid keeps his abstinence commitment," said Denny Pattyn, whose non-profit group, The Silver Ring Thing, offers faith-based, rock-style concerts that promote abstinence pledges. And Pattyn thinks that even simply informing children about alternatives to abstinence is foolish.
In the end, he said, it is a matter of faith.
"I'll put my money on the kid with the abstinence commitment every time," he said.
A single point of agreement is that more teens are contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Both sides use terms like "horrific" to describe transmission rates, as recently reported by the CDC, that indicate that 26 percent of young women ages 14 to 19 have at least one sexually transmitted diseases. That's 3.2 million girls. And each side blames the other's education method for these numbers.
Ron Werner-Wilson, chairman of the Family Studies program at the University of Kentucky, said both groups clearly care about the health of teens. The disconnect between the two points to just how difficult it is for families to discuss teen sex. When it becomes a public debate, it's even more complex.
In general, parents are uncomfortable talking about sex, and they feel the need to point out the problems associated with it instead of its importance in a healthy relationship, Werner-Wilson said. No responsible parents want to feel as if they are encouraging their teens to have sex.
The recent focus on teen pregnancy offers the perfect time to start conversations, he said.
"If parents can overcome their own discomfort," he said, "I think this is a terrific opportunity for everybody, regardless of your feelings."