Presidential Candidates and Comprehensive Sex Education

James Wagoner

When it comes to abstinence-only-until-marriage, The Republican presidential candidates are head-in-the-sand true believers, convoluted converts or, silent; Democrats are largely silent on the issue.

When it comes to abstinence-only-until-marriage, the Republican presidential candidates are head-in-the-sand true believers, convoluted converts or, if you're Rudy Giuliani, you're silent — very silent — on the issue.

Most of the Democrats expressed perfunctory support for comprehensive sex education when asked directly on a candidate questionnaire (thank you, Human Rights Campaign!), but remain largely silent on the campaign trail. Nor do they exhibit any leadership on the issue in Congress.

On the other hand, the majority of the Republicans can't stop talking about the issue. The hardcore supporters of failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs include Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Duncan Hunter. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the candidates run the gamut of persuasive arguments for abstinence-only from A to B.

Sam Brownback is "denialist in chief" with an entire page of his website devoted to the awesome wonders of abstinence-only-until-marriage education. He even has the temerity to use the word "data" when talking about these programs. Gee, Sam, what "data" is this? Mathematica's multi-year evaluation of abstinence-only programs mandated by Congress that demonstrated they don't work? Or maybe the 2000 Institute of Medicine report that stated the programs should be abolished because they represent "poor fiscal and public health policy"?

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Mike Huckabee grew up in a society where the "Gideons gave out Bibles … rather than school nurses giving our condoms." He does not believe in teaching "about sex or contraception in public schools." Then again, Mike probably believes that conception begins at flirtation.

Duncan Hunter, "concerned over the breakdown of values" in America, wants "equal emphasis" on abstinence, since he believes the government is overly focused on educating children on the "dangers of STDs and contraception." I wonder what government he is talking about — Lithuania?

Then there are the convoluted converts like Mitt Romney and John McCain. Romney, during his 2002 campaign, filled out a questionnaire stating that he supported comprehensive sex education. Since that time, along with his deep commitment to his presidential ambitions, he's discovered an equally deep commitment to abstinence-only-until-marriage education. Ralph Waldo Emerson talked about consistency being the "hobgoblin of little minds." Emerson meant it as a compliment for creative thinkers. I don't think Mitt Romney fits that bill.

John McCain infamously put his foot in his mouth when he first tried to respond to a question about whether he supported condoms as part of HIV prevention. After some garbled meanderings as reported by The New York Times, McCain became a born-again, staunch supporter of abstinence-only, saying on Christian Broadcasting Network that we must "promote abstinence as the only safe and responsible alternative. To do otherwise is to send a mixed signal to children that, on the one hand, they should not be sexually active and, but on the other, here is the way to go about it." Yep, educating young people about prevention seems a "mixed message" and actually causes them to have sex — just like umbrellas cause rain.

Rudy Giuliani is militantly mute on sex education. Having publicly supported New York City's condom distribution program when mayor, Rudy at least has the decency to avoid "pulling a Romney."

On the Democratic front, there is not a lot to say, because the candidates are not saying much. And that, my friends, is a problem. A big problem.

All of the candidates filled out an HRC questionnaire stating they would support the REAL Act, the comprehensive sex education legislation currently in Congress.

This week, during the Planned Parenthood conference, all the Democratic candidates pledged their commitment to reversing the Bush Administration conservative approach to "abortion rights, judicial appointments, sex education and contraception." In fact, Senator Hillary Clinton promised to "devote [her] very first days in office to reversing these ideological, anti-science, anti-prevention policies."

However, neither Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, nor Joseph Biden has signed on as a co-sponsor of the REAL Act. Christopher Dodd, a co-sponsor in 2006, has not signed on this year. In fact, the only member of Congress running for president who is a cosponsor of the REAL Act is Dennis Kucinich.

It should also be noted that in 2004, Clinton was approached to be the original Senate sponsor of the Family Life Education Act. After an initial expression of interest from her office, all Advocates for Youth received was a massive runaround from her staff. Eventually, Senator Frank Lautenberg sponsored the bill.

Well, there you have it — a fairly uninspiring Democratic presidential candidate record on the sex education issue.

Clearly, we have got a lot of work to do to get these candidates informed, committed, and vocal on an issue that is not only critical to public health but central to the rights and respect we should afford young people in our culture.

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