Six years ago, the state Department of Health made headlines when it rejected a federal grant for abstinence-only education in public schools.
For New Mexico—which has the highest teen pregnancy and teen gonorrhea and chlamydia rates in the nation according to the most recent data available—the decision was a signal of the state’s lack of faith in such an approach to sex education. Abstinence-only education teaches that waiting for sex until marriage is the “expected standard for all school-age children” and “the only way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems,” according to the federal definition.
Such education programs, however, have largely been discredited as ineffective.
“The evidence was clear,” says Bruce Trigg, who until 2010 was a regional medical director for DOH’s sexually transmitted disease program. “These programs were incredibly biased [and] religious based. They were useless.”
So it may come as a surprise that last fall, DOH, along with New Mexico State University, quietly accepted $470,182 federal abstinence-only education funds, with the state matching $3 for every $4 spent federally. Since then, the state has matched more than $350,000 in in-kind contributions for abstinence-only education, says DOH spokesman Kenny Vigil.
The funds are being used in six counties—Chavez, Cibola, Curry, Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea and Luna—for a community-based curriculum called “Sex Can Wait,” according to the Washington DC-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), which tracks abstinence-only federal dollars and advocates for comprehensive sex education for teens. But Vigil writes in an email that the money is being used for a curriculum that was piloted this summer and will soon be offered as an optional after-school program for middle school students in Curry County.
“It allows New Mexico to offer another option for sex education,” Vigil writes. “It would have been a substantial amount of money to turn down.”
That still hasn’t stopped Santa Fe Public Schools from rejecting the grants.
“The research shows that abstinence-only doesn’t work,” SFPS Student Wellness Director Tita Gervers tells SFR.
Mainly, critics like Trigg warn that such programs fail to teach teens about contraception and birth control.
“It’s sacrificing the future of kids because of people’s ideologies,” he says. “To deny kids that information is completely unproven and ineffective.”
Indeed, both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics are opposed to abstinence-only education. Even a 2007 study conducted on behalf of the federal Health and Human Services Department—the very organization that funds abstinence-only education—concluded that students who take abstinence-only programs were just as likely to experience their first sex at the same age and have the same number of sex partners as those who don’t take abstinence-only education courses.
Opponents say that’s troubling for New Mexico, especially considering that more than 30 percent of students under the age of 15 say they have had sex before, according to DOH statistics.
“We know that an abstinence-only approach is not effective in delaying sexual intercourse in young people,” Monica Rodriguez, a spokeswoman with SIECUS, says. “There’s a risk that they don’t know anything about contraception and condoms.”
But Rodriguez concedes that the “Sex Can Wait” curriculum, which was published by Dr. Michael Young in 1994, is one of the better abstinence-only courses being funded across the nation. That’s because Young’s program doesn’t shame people for having sex in the way that other federally-funded programs do. Instead, she says it focuses mainly on really encouraging people to wait.
One published review of the “Sex Can Wait” curriculum found it to be slightly effective in preventing teen pregnancy and STD rates, although Young co-authored it.
“Can the author really be expected to evaluate his own curriculum fairly?” Trigg asks.
The federal grants, which last year totaled $55 million, fall under a program called Title V. The program dates back to 1996, when it was added as a small part of President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill. The grant money must at the very least loosely follow eight federal guidelines for sex education, none of which teach about contraception as a means to prevent teen pregnancies or STDs.
Still, Vigil writes that DOH has a comprehensive sex education program and that it “supports an all-of-the-above sex education approach.”
DOH came under fire for similar reasons last year when then-Chief Medical Officer Erin Bouquin claimed she was forced to resign in retaliation for promoting teen condom use in a TV interview. DOH denied her allegations.
Santa Fe Rejection
For at least the past decade, Santa Fe Public Schools has refused to accept the abstinence-only education funding from the state.
Instead, SFPS works in conjunction with Planned Parenthood on a comprehensive sex education program that teaches both abstinence and contraception to students in 7th, 8th and 9th grade.
SFPS Wellness Director Tita Gervers says the program is evaluated and updated every three years.