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Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque

From: Planned Parenthood's Choice Magazine, 5/06/06

           

The documentary Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque is a case study of abstinence-only sex education in one school district in Albuquerque, NM and the controversy it engendered. This is just one example of what is happening across the country as a result of the federal government spending millions of dollars on unproven abstinence-only education programs.

A Mother's Concern

The film begins in 2005, when Susan Rodriguez, outraged that a faith-based group is running a mandatory abstinence-only sex education program at her daughter's public high school, brings her concerns to the Albuquerque school board.

Rodriguez was dismayed that the sex education curriculum used in the Albuquerque school district was full of inaccuracies similar to those identified in the landmark December 2004 report commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). The Waxman report found that more than two-thirds of government-funded abstinence-only programs distort information and mislead young people by giving them false information about abortion and contraception, particularly about the effectiveness of condoms.

The program in the Albuquerque public schools included a deceptive correlation between rising rates of sexually transmitted infections and an increase in condom use and a disingenuous comparison between the number of 9/11 victims and the number of aborted fetuses in the United States. In the film, Rodriguez's daughter, Sarah, recalls her ninth-grade class being taught wrongly that a 12-week-old fetus was a fully developed human being and that abortion was "very scary and very bad." The curriculum also stated deceptively that sex before marriage could result in suicide.

"Abstinence is not a bad idea," Susan Rodriguez says in the film, "but I don't like this group coming in and politicizing it." Educators, teens, health professionals, and other like-minded parents shared in Rodriquez's concern and helped to bring the debate to the next level.

The State Steps In

The debate grew loud enough to attract the attention of the New Mexico Department of Health. New Mexico receives $500,000 in federal funding for abstinence-only education each year. Michelle Grisham, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, set out to examine the efficacy of these programs. Grisham expressed particular concern over the state's teen pregnancy rate. "We are not getting ahead of this problem," she says. "We have the third-highest [teen] pregnancy rate in the nation. The only way to stop the trend is to get at it early." As Grisham points out, abstinence-only was not an effective way to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy.

In April 2005, Grisham announced that the New Mexico Department of Health would limit the use of federal abstinence funding to programs for students in the sixth grade and below. Abstinence-only programs were pulled from junior high and high school classes. This paved the way for older students to receive comprehensive sex education which includes abstinence as well as a discussion of birth control.

Although the film ends here, the saga continues. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that New Mexico schools will lose all federal abstinence funds unless the programs are reinstated for junior high and high school students. Grisham plans to challenge the decision.

Across the Country

What happened in Albuquerque is just one example of what is happening across the country. Charles Stuart, the filmmaker, explains that Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque comes at a crucial time. "There are controversies all over the U.S. where abstinence-only money is coming into the communities and the school systems," he says. "And there are many, many places where this is happening because 47 states take some form of federal abstinence dollars." Under the Bush administration, funding for such programs has increased dramatically. In 2005, $205.5 million was allocated to federally approved abstinence-only education programs. The administration has vowed to increase funding to $270 million by 2008.

Studies have shown that teaching abstinence alone is not sufficient and that only comprehensive, medically accurate sex education has been proven to prevent unintended pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. But because comprehensive sex education programs provide information on both abstinence and birth control, they are not eligible for the federal abstinence-only funds.

For Stuart, documenting the situation in Albuquerque as it unfolded was an ideal way to highlight the current debate about sex education that is raging around the country. For the viewer, the film is an engaging examination of an increasingly heated topic that affects countless young people

today.