Abstinence activists rally in DC for more funding

Liz Goodwin

A group of more than 50 students involved in abstinence-only education programs around the country are descending on Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to restore federal funding to their programs.

President Obama eliminated all federal funding for abstinence-only education after he took office, citing independent evaluations that found the programs didn't convince kids to delay sex and, in fact, lowered condom use among participants who did have sex. In a compromise measure, Congress restored $250 million over five years to abstinence education in last year's health care overhaul, but that is still a much smaller outlay than the programs received under President George W. Bush.

Sixteen-year-old Akila Copeland of Colorado is the president of her school's chapter of Friends First, an abstinence group that mentors middle-school girls. "We have felt the stress of the loss of money," Copeland told The Lookout. "We normally have scholarships for students to go to winter trips and we no longer have that."

National Abstinence Education Association Valerie Huber says about 1 million kids were in programs that lost funding.

Copeland says she wants to tell members of Congress that the program changed her life. "I labeled myself as archetypal teenage girl who just kind of hung around, did whatever she wanted but with Friends First I developed into a young lady, and I'm more open to telling people my life story and I have tangible goals for myself and I'm not held back by the media influences telling me I need to do this, I need to have sex," she said. Copeland added the program isn't "preachy" and also focuses on building confidence and warning girls to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

In 2009, Friends First received about $1 million from two federal abstinence-only funding streams that have since been discontinued. The comprehensive sex education group SIECUS criticized Friends First in a report for holding Quinceañera ceremonies for participants where the girls pledge to save their virginity for their future husbands. The report says research shows girls who take virginity pledges are much less likely than other girls to use contraception when they do have sex.

Cameron Harris, a 17-year-old from Washington, D.C. who is the president of the abstinence group Best Friends, said he thinks the program has changed his life, too. "I actually wouldn't be in school right now if Best Friends didn't exist," he says. "I'm an A-B student now. It's helped me become more respectful to women and it's helped me become more of a gentleman."

National Abstinence Education Association Spokeswoman Lara Bailey says the students will meet with legislators from their districts tomorrow for "Abstinence Day on the Hill," an event the umbrella group helped organize. The goal is to prevail on lawmakers to squeeze more money into the federal budget for abstinence programs. Bailey said that more students would have come, but funding cuts have made it hard for some groups to travel.

Meanwhile, a group of students with a sharply contrasting message rallied at the Texas Capitol this week, asking lawmakers to require schools to teach kids about contraceptives. "At my high school, when a teenager gets pregnant, it's not that big of a deal, because it's such a common thing," Nicole Vargas told Reuters. More than 95 percent of Texas schools teach abstinence-only sex education, and the state has the third-highest teen pregnancy rate. Only 18 states require schools that teach sex ed also to teach about contraceptives, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Despite the large body of evidence that shows abstinence-only programs are ineffective, one study suggested abstinence-only instruction can work. A University of Pennsylvania researcher found last year that morally neutral abstinence-only programs delayed sex among middle-schoolers and didn't lower condom use when the participants did eventually have sex. The program did not emphasize marriage as the only appropriate time to have sex: it just encouraged participants to wait until they personally felt ready.

The Obama administration has poured millions into a teen pregnancy prevention initiative aimed at reinforcing proven approaches to the problem. Under the new campaign, ant-teen pregnancy programs can emphasize abstinence but are required to also teach about contraceptives.

Meanwhile, the popular Fox show "Glee" dove into the abstinence debate this week. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow declared abstinence unrealistic.

(Students in a sex-ed class in a church in Florida: AP)