National Abstinence Education Association Throws Bristol Palin Under the Bus

Jodi Jacobson

Now that Bristol Palin has dared to use her own voice to speak out about the challenges of early motherhood, the fact that "abstinence-only-until-marriage" is unrealistic, and the need for real sex ed, the far right is throwing her under the bus.

During the presidential campaign, the far right glorified Bristol Palin as a teen who got pregnant and "chose life." 

Now that she has dared to use her own voice to speak out about the challenges of early motherhood, the fact that "abstinence-only-until-marriage" is unrealistic, and the need for real sex ed, they are throwing her under the bus.

These guys are serious about their fundamentalist ideologies.

"The Cold Hard Facts Melt Myth That Abstinence Is Unrealistic" is the title of a statement by the National Abstinence Education Assocation (NAEA) responding to Bristol Palin’s interview on Fox with Greta Van Susteren. 

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Which left me wondering: Which cold hard facts are they talking about? 

The statement says:

During Sarah Palin’s recent vice- presidential bid, her unmarried teen daughter Bristol’s pregnancy became a hot campaign topic. As a follow-up report on this compelling human interest story, Fox News Commentator Greta van Susteren, asked Bristol Palin about abstinence. Bristol shared her view that “abstinence is….not realistic at all”. It is suspect that media, seemingly devoted to science based research, is quick to claim Bristol Palin’s experience as proof positive that abstinence education for all teens should end.


First, let’s put aside the very generous description of Fox as "media seemingly devoted to science-based research."  It is too distracting.

The main point: I have not heard anyone, anywhere, suggest that "abstinence education for all teens should end."  Rather, many have said before me,  and I have argued here (indeed just this week) that federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage education should end.

As soon as possible.

In making this statement, I am safely within the majority of the public health and advocacy communities and of U.S. public opinon

The difference is about teaching only abstinence (which, combined with misleading information about sex, birth control, sexual identity, and the roles of women is what members of NAEA do) or using accurate information to encourage real outcomes of abstinence and sexual delay while also equipping teens with safer sex skills for when they do become sexually active.  The former have failed, the latter work.  I won’t reiterate here all the evidence, because it is extensively laid out, documented and linked in my earlier blog, and on the websites of well-respected organizations such as SIECUS, Advocates for Youth, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Guttmacher Institute and many others.

But NAEA does what they and other groups who focus more on ideology than evidence do best: They twist words and facts to fit their fantasies.

First they claim the following:

And a growing body of research shows that well-executed abstinence education programs are demonstrating impressive results. 

Huh?  Request to folks at NAEA: References please!  Since they craftily only say part of what they mean, because their members all run abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, they confuse the debate and mislead by not referring to the evidence examining the very programs they support.  Again, see this week’s blog post for a wealth of independent evidence that refutes this statement.

The NAEA statement goes on to say:

While Bristol’s story makes for an interesting human-interest story, her comment should not be the basis to form public policy on the complex issue of teen sex especially if we look at the facts regarding the teen sexual activity.  According to the CDC, the percentage of teens that have chosen not to have sex has risen from 45.9% in 1991 to 52.2% in 2007. Incredibly, this success is in the midst of an increasingly sexualized culture that paints premarital, casual teen sex as exciting, without consequence, and expected behavior. 
The fact is most teens are abstinent.   There are millions of teens for which abstinence is not only realistic, but is their chosen lifestyle. An honest look at the statistics confirms this fact.

Oh…I see.  I guess it was ok that "Bristol’s story" be used to promote public policy when she made the choice to keep her baby, a choice that worked for her but that instantly made her the poster child for the political ambitions of her mother and of the far right in the abortion debate.  In fact her mother couldn’t resist interrupting the Fox interview to "set the record straight" on what Bristol really meant.  (Now that Bristol’s a mom can she speak for herself??)  I am sure Bristol’s honesty doesn’t help her mother’s drive to be queen of the ultra-right in 2012.  I imagine public appearances for Bristol may be few and far between in the near future.  In fact, Bristol may have been sent to her room indefinitely.

Indeed, NAEA gives another zinger to Bristol by saying:

The cold hard fact coming out of Alaska is that not all teens choose
abstinence but we should be encouraged by the fact that the majority

Whoa.  Harsh.  Bristol clearly has lost friends.  She is no longer the girl who "made a mistake and made the choice for life," but an "unmarried teen" who couldn’t keep her clothes on.  Like I said yesterday, this girl has guts.  And she will need them.

But back to NAEA’s assertion that "most teens are abstinent."  Here again, they engage in the usual pretzel-twisting of words and concepts. 

The question is: which teens, at what age?

It is true that age at first sexual intercourse has increased. According to data compiled from various sources by the Guttmacher
Institute, teens are indeed waiting longer to have sex than they did in the
past.  Some
13% of females and 15% of males aged 15-19 in 2002 had had sex before
age 15, compared with 19% and 21%, respectively, in 1995.

This is a very good thing.

But it is not true that "most teens are abstinent" unless you are talking only about teens ages 16 and under.

Let’s look at the facts:

Older teens are much more likely to be sexually active.  Again, according to Guttmacher:

  • Nearly half (46%) of all 15-19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once.
  • By the time they reach age 19, seven in 10 teens have engaged in sexual intercourse.

Because most young people have sex for the first time at about age 17, but do
not marry until their middle or late 20s
, young adults
are likely to be sexually active before marrying for nearly a decade.  This means they need protection from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  Some may never marry; some are not legally able.

Some may choose to be abstinent until marriage.  That is their right and their prerogative.  Others will choose to engage in sexual activity.  

Should we just throw them all under the bus?

Or do we equip them early on with good negotiating skills, medically accurate information, and access to birth control (including condoms) that can prevent either one or both of unintended pregnancy and infection.  

And let’s be real here folks: people use contraception within marriage to delay, space or prevent pregnancy, and under many circumstances may need to prevent infections for life.  So we are not talking about skills for teens.  We are talking about skills for people having sex throughout their lifetime.  These are not some other species of being.  These people are all of us.  You and me, our kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, cousins, foster children, god-children.  Everyone.

More actual facts:

•A sexually active teen who does not use contraceptives has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within a year.

•The condom is the most common contraceptive method used at first intercourse; it was used by 66% of sexually experienced females and 71% of males.

•Nearly all sexually active females (98% in 2002) have used at least one method of birth control. The most common methods used are the condom (used at least once by 94%) and the pill (used at least once by 61%).

•At most recent sex, 83% of teen females and 91% of teen males used
contraceptives. These proportions represent a marked improvement since
1995, when only 71% of teen females and 82% of teen males had used a
contraceptive method at last sex.

So we know that given the right information and training, the majority of sexually active teens and young adults who do engage in sex will make good judgements about protecting themselves.  Our job is to encourage protective behavior when they do engage in sex, not to stigmatize protection.

Yet, to recieve federal funding under current program definitions, according to the ACLU:

Abstinence-only programs must have the
"exclusive purpose" of teaching the benefits of abstinence. They may
not advocate contraceptive use or teach contraceptive methods except to
emphasize their failure rates.

Thus, recipients of federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funds
operate under a gag rule that censors vitally needed information.
Grantees are forced to omit any mention of topics such as
contraception, abortion and AIDS or to present them in an incomplete
and therefore inaccurate fashion.

Indeed, many of them use fear-based tactics to drive their message across.  The NAEA site proudly features a link to this commentary by a conservative Idaho group:

In many states, including Idaho, sex outside marriage is against the
law, and that includes consensual sex between teenagers. Sex outside
marriage, whether "fornication" or "adultery" from a legal standpoint,
is punishable by both a fine and imprisonment.

Yet, educating teens about the legal risks they run if they become
sexually active before marriage is a topic that is rarely if ever
discussed in sex ed classes.

I’m guessing educators show less restraint in making students aware of
the legal risks of drunk driving or possession of drugs, but common
sense dictates that making young adults aware that their behavior is
not only dangerous but also illegal ought to be a part of a thorough

Says a former Georgia district attorney, "We do a disgraceful job of
educating kids about the very real consequences that they face." He
will soon publish a book entitled, "Ignorance Is No Defense: A
Teenagers Guide to Georgia Law."

One educator in Sugar Land, Texas brings a police officer in to teach a
class on sex and the law to her high schoolers, and says it is probably
her most popular class. "The kids are really engaged and ask a lot of
questions," she says. "And most of them are completely amazed that they
could actually be arrested."

Sex SWAT teams?  Do they need a warrant?

But now comes the real issue.  NAEA exists in large part to secure federal funding for disproven programs.  And their financial survival depends in large part on membership dues from state and local organizations receiving federal funds to carry out their work.  In the FAQ section of their website, NAEA states:

Q: Can our organization join NAEA since we have lobbying restrictions as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization?

Yes. Public charities may use up to 20 percent of their budgets for
lobbying purposes. However, since the NAEA membership fee is
significantly less than 20 percent of most organizational funds, your
membership fee will fall well within the legal guidelines for nonprofit

Q: Can we use federal grant funds to join the NAEA?

Federal Circular A-122 permits grant funds to be used to join
professional associations such as NAEA. NAEA estimates that 50% of
membership dues will be used for lobbying activities; however no
federal funds can be used for lobbying. Therefore, 50% (or $75) of an
organizational membership fee should come from non federal grant funds.
If this is not possible, please contact NAEA and your dues will be
segregated from any lobbying expenditures.

So NAEA is feeding at a trough filled until now by your taxpayer dollars. NAEA clearly is afraid that given the overwhelming evidence against the kinds
of programs for which they receive federal funding, the Democratic
White House and Congress, and a national mood for eliminating wasteful
spending, it may be faced with a loss of funds. 

Their statement says that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs:

Only receives about $175 million a year – an amount that is considered mere pocket change by members of Congress,who hold our purse strings.

Pocket change?  Does John Boehner agree?  He and his colleagues got their knickers in a twist about the non-existent $200 million for family planning in the stimulus.  What does he say about $175 million for programs that have been completely discredited?

Finally, NAEA includes a "call to arms" among adherents of abstinence-only-until-marriage, asking members to participate in the 2009 "Abstinence Day on the Hill."

Most Members of Congress base their views of abstinence education around misinformation they read in the media or hear from special interest groups opposed to abstinence. They rarely see or hear from abstinence providers or youth who have benefited from the approach. This year, every state must be represented to insure that every Member of Congress hears the compelling story of youth who have chosen to be abstinent.

Which is why I reiterate: You need to take action now to ensure that Congress does the right thing.  We just had an election in which the candidate who won–President Obama–promised to base policy and funding on evidence, and to get rid of programs that don’t work.  Everyone of us who believes that teens deserve non-biased, medically accurate information need to mobilize to make sure Congress hears our collective voice.

Take action: See Advocates for Youth
here, and SIECUS here.

Pass it on.  

And send Bristol good thoughts.  It is getting awfully cold in Alaska. 


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