VIDEO: Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque, Part 2

Emily Douglas

Part 2 of Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque. Sarah was in ninth grade when she attended a mandatory 5-day health class on sex-ed in her public school. But when Sarah's mother heard what her daughter was being taught she took action.

Part 2 of Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque. Sarah was in ninth grade
when she attended a mandatory 5-day health class on sex-ed in her
public school. But when Sarah’s mother heard what her daughter was
being taught she took action. If you missed Part 1, you can catch it here.


Our Reality: Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque, Part 2 from Rewire on Vimeo.

News Law and Policy

Angel Dillard Details Connections to Radical Anti-Choice Groups

Michelle D. Anderson

Angel Dillard shared during the second day of her trial that she had protested outside an abortion clinic in the 1990s and had provided music for a conference organized by Operation Rescue.

Angel Dillard on Wednesday further confirmed her involvement with the groups Kansans for Life and Operation Rescue despite her legal defense’s efforts to distance her from the radical anti-choice movement during a direct examination held in U.S. District Court.

Dillard is standing trial in Wichita, Kansas, for sending a threatening letter to a local physician, Dr. Mila Means, in January 2011. The letter, now being considered by an eight-person jury, implied someone might place an explosive under Means’ car. Dillard wrote that thousands of people in the anti-choice movement would soon know where the doctor dwelled and that “we will not let this abomination continue without doing everything we can to stop it,” among other claims.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2011 filed a lawsuit against Dillard, saying the letter violated the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which prohibits threatening abortion providers or interfering with access to abortion clinics. The DOJ, which is requesting a civil penalty of $15,000, $5,000 in damages paid to Means, and a court order to keep Dillard 250 feet away from Means, had appealed a ruling by a federal judge who dismissed its claim in 2013.

The U.S. District Court is now hearing the case after the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled last year that a jury should decide whether Dillard’s letter constituted a “true threat.”

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Dillard, during a Wednesday examination with her defense attorney, Theresa Sidebotham, said she wrote the letter to stop Means from providing abortion care and from replacing Dr. George Tiller, the abortion provider who was murdered in 2009 by Dillard’s associate, Scott Roeder.

Dillard said she wrote the letter after she learned about a Kansans for Life letter-writing campaign. She revealed she had a paid membership and had volunteered for the group by mailing out packages and sitting at its booth at state fair events.

She explained why she suggested Means might find a bomb under her car.

“It’s a prediction,” Dillard said. “Tiller said he had to look under his car before he went to work.”

Like the DOJ, Dillard’s defense during evidence proceedings referred to the notorious letter and various news articles, including interviews Means gave to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

They also referenced the 2009 film What’s the Matter With Kansas?a documentary based on journalist and historian Thomas Frank’s 2004 book about the conservative movement in the state. Dillard was a subject in the movie.

Dillard shared that she had protested outside an abortion clinic in the 1990s and had provided music for a conference organized by Operation Rescue. The anti-choice group had reportedly helped Roeder track court dates associated with Tiller, who had been pursued on false charges related to later abortion care. Tiller was eventually acquitted.

The testimony Dillard provided contrasted with the picture Sidebotham painted in an opening statement Tuesday. Dillard, Sidebotham said, had barely protested and didn’t know much about “the radical abortion groups.”

FBI Agent Sean Fitzgerald, who organized a security briefing with Means and local authorities to discuss safety concerns just days before Dillard sent the letter, testified as a witness on Wednesday.

Fitzgerald told jurors that he interviewed Dillard about her letter’s intent and discovered the FBI had researched her in connection to her prison ministry.

The agent, whose job focuses on preventing domestic terrorism, said he first took the letter to a U.S. District Attorney’s office, which declined to pursue a criminal case against Dillard. Fitzgerald said he closed his investigation on Dillard before he learned the DOJ would pursue a civil lawsuit against the Kansas activist.

Last month, just days before this week’s three-day trial, Dillard’s defense team made a last-minute attempt to have the case thrown out based on the argument that the FACE Act was unconstitutional, the Associated Press reported. Judge J. Thomas Marten, the case’s presiding judge, rejected the claim and ruled on what evidence jurors would hear in this week’s trial.

Dillard’s defense made another attempt to have the case dismissed Wednesday after Marten excused jurors for a brief recess. Sidebotham argued the DOJ team had failed to produce any evidence that Dillard’s letter posed a threat to Means. Marten didn’t agree and the case continued.

The DOJ began its cross-examination of Dillard and is expected to resume on Thursday.

Commentary Sexual Health

When It Comes to Abstinence-Only Education Battles, Let’s Fight Anecdotes With Anecdotes

Amanda Marcotte

It is tempting to laugh at Texas Rep. Stuart Spitzer, whose argument for abstinence-only education for everyone was that waiting until marriage worked for him. But the cold fact of the matter is that anecdote is often more persuasive than data.

Abstinence-only education is an idea that seems like it will never die. It’s been discredited, disproved, poll-tested, and laughed at for years, but Christian conservatives just keep dusting the asinine idea off and presenting it like it’s not 15 kinds of idiotic. The most recent example, as reported by Rewire’s Andrea Grimes, comes to us by way of Texas, where state house Republicans have decided to divert $3 million from a program to prevent HIV infections to a program telling teenagers to wait until they are married to have sex, a choice that more than 95 percent of them will reject.

It is tedious debunking the fantasy of abstinence-only education over and over again, but at least this time there was some entertainment offered alongside the usual tedious prudery spilling out from Texas Republicans. State Rep. Stuart Spitzer told the legislature that his goal is “for everybody to be abstinent until they’re married.” His justification: “What’s good for me is good for a lot of people.”

This created chaos, of course, when Democrats pointed out that he needed to prove that it was good for him instead of just asserting it. But what struck me about the comment, beyond how hilariously stupid it was, was that it perfectly encapsulates why exactly it’s so hard to kill this abstinence-only ideology off completely: Because the argument that it could work somehow gets confused with the idea that it will work or even that it should work.

Because the most obvious, repeated, well-sourced objection to abstinence-only education is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work when it comes to its ostensible goal of persuading people to wait until marriage. It doesn’t even work to scare teenagers off sex until they’re a little older. It seems to backfire when it comes to teen pregnancy rates and STI transmission rates—which is why it’s so devastating when funds are diverted from effective, comprehensive prevention or education programs to these abstinence-only failures. When you look over the data, abstinence-only is the equivalent of trying to kick a soccer ball but instead falling directly on your ass.

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The problem is that anecdotes are often more persuasive than data. Research shows that this is true when people are considering tragic events too: We feel worse reading about a single person’s suffering than reading a statistic that says it happens to thousands. But it’s also true where less traumatic issues are concerned. Personal accounts powerfully shape what we think is possible or even desirable, even in the face of massive amounts of evidence showing that they aren’t telling the full story.

In this way, people who are in a small minority can distort the narrative, distracting others from the numbers and convincing them to treat an outlier experience like it’s not just normal but normative. Think of anti-vaccination folks, for example. They have seen the data showing inoculations are not dangerous. But they heard a story about someone who thinks their own kid’s autism might be related to the vaccine. The latter has more persuasive power in a lot of cases, enough to bring back the measles when we thought we had it licked.

So while Spitzer sounds like a total idiot to pro-choicers, his kind of rhetoric is sneakily effective. To all your data showing abstinence-only education doesn’t work, he replies with a story—one you can’t refute without accusing him of being a liar—of a man who did wait to have sex until marriage, thus showing that it’s possible to do so. And it’s this possibility that persuasively captures the imagination, particularly of people who are easily caught up in the romantic spin anti-choicers put on the idea of abstinence before matrimony.

Data has a hard time competing with anecdote. You can say that the data shows that telling people to wait doesn’t work, but all a man like Spitzer has to do is say that it worked for him. In reality, no one opposing abstinence-only education was saying that it’s impossible to wait for marriage—just that in the aggregate, people will not make that choice, no matter what you tell them. But most people don’t think in aggregate. The choice to have sex, in particular, is an individual one, and so it’s really hard not to think of it on a case-by-case basis.

This isn’t just the case when it comes to convincing ordinary citizens to agree with faulty logic, for that matter. This kind of distortion affects the decision-making of people in power—beyond the Republicans who are passing this kind of legislation. Consider how Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his decision for Gonzales v. Carhart, completely ignored the overwhelming data showing “abortion regret” is not generally a real thing, instead zeroing in on the few individuals the anti-choice team was able to dig up. A couple of well-rehearsed stories about “abortion regret” trumped the experiences of millions of women who are glad they had access to abortion care.

All of which is why I think that the best way to kill off abstinence-only education—and similar movements trying to ban abortion and restrict contraception—is to really embrace the power of the anecdote. Conservatives like Spitzer want to suggest that abstaining worked for them, so it should work for everyone. And while we, as pro-choicers, are never going to buy into the conformist mentality that everyone should be the same all the time, there’s a lot of value in telling our stories about why premarital sex, in all its messy but wonderful diversity, worked for us and therefore should be treated like a legitimate choice that deserves to be included in sex education. Data certainly shouldn’t be disregarded, but when data isn’t working, meet anecdote with anecdote. They’ll run out long before we do, since almost no one actually waits until marriage for sex, statistically speaking. Seriously, people are probably more likely to hate ice cream than wait for marriage. (In my heart, I’ll always be a data nerd, I guess.)

So with that, my story: I didn’t wait for marriage, and thank goodness, as I never want to get married, which means I would have had to wait forever. My first boyfriend will be annoyed to read this, but if anything, I waited too long out of a misplaced fear that it was going to be a bigger deal than it was. As I immediately learned, sex is really fun and not all that dangerous if you take very basic precautions that can easily be learned through comprehensive sex education. (Which I didn’t get in school, but I’m a reader, so I learned.) If I had been snookered by abstinence-only education and tried to wait until marriage, my life could be full of regret and misery. Not only would I have missed out on some of the fondest memories of my youth, I probably would have gotten married young out of obligation. And then gotten divorced, because I was so not ready to make that kind of lifelong commitment in my early 20s.

Or, if I had attempted to hold off, I probably would have had sex anyway in the heat of the moment like most abstinence-vowers do. But I wouldn’t have used protection, because I likely wouldn’t have been as willing to prepare for this possibility as someone who is unashamed about having sex would be.

However, because I unapologetically and gleefully had—and I guess continue to have—sex outside of the bounds of holy matrimony, my life has been more fun, more adventurous, and way more fulfilling than I imagine it would have been for me personally. And abstinence-only feels like it’s trying to steal the opportunity to make that choice from our youth, which is the main reason I oppose it.

That, and the data says it doesn’t work anyway.