Brigitte Amiri, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, and Tricia Herzfeld, ACLU of Tennessee
“Mom, am I more likely to go to jail because you and Dad aren’t married?” Imagine your sixth grader coming home and asking you that question after being taught family life in school. That’s what happened to Caroleigh Heaton in Maryville, Tennessee. Ms. Heaton contacted us, and we obtained the abstinence-only-until-marriage program used throughout the Maryville school district. We found that in addition to withholding vital information that kids need to make healthy decisions about sex, the program also advanced questionable “facts” that implied that children from single-parent homes — especially homes without a father — were doomed to a lower rate of success than their classmates from two-parent homes. The program emphasized that kids from fatherless homes were significantly more likely to exhibit behavioral disorders, drop-out of school or go to prison.
In addition to marginalizing kids raised by single parents, these programs also inherently discriminate against children of gay and lesbian parents or those who themselves are LGBTQ. So last month we sent a letter to the school district asking them to change their family life education course to ensure that it is inclusive and teaches that, regardless of a child’s home life, she can achieve her goals. We also asked them to rid the program of outmoded gender stereotypes and medical inaccuracies. For example, the program teaches students that “girls spend much more time trying to look good and caring about what they wear.” And the program also provides inaccurate information about the efficacy of condoms in protecting against sexually transmitted infections.
It’s not just individual abstinence-only programs that promote this view: our federal government does too. The federal definition of an “abstinence program” is one that includes teaching students that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society. Our federal government unfortunately continues to spend millions of dollars on abstinence-only programs that are required to follow this definition, or at the very least not contradict it.
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No child should be taught that it is preordained that she will not achieve her goals, will be destined to live a life of poverty, and will end up in jail simply because she does not come from a home with a married mother and father. Schools also should not use shame or fear to teach students to wait to have sex until they are married. Instead, all students should be given the tools they need to make healthy decisions and to reach their highest potential.