Refusing to address teen births

By Bonnie K. Adams

The State’s Dec. 27 editorial about the nation’s rising teen birth rate expressed appropriate concern about taxpayers’ funds being used to put abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in our schools, stating “we need some assurance that specific programs do work before we keep spending tax money on them.” Indeed.

The editorial also bemoaned that rational conversations about sex education are nearly impossible because the debate about how to address teenage pregnancies is so ideologically charged. While true, it is an oversimplification to suggest that this issue is only about philosophical differences: The sex education debate in the United States is at least as much about the protection of large pots of money benefiting abstinence-only-until-marriage entrepreneurs as it is about genuine philosophical differences.

According to a recent study by USC’s Center for Health Policy and Research, births to young mothers 10-19 cost South Carolina’s taxpayers $156 million annually. When our state budget forecast is dismal, when our schools are hurting and when DHEC needs more funding for family planning clinical services rather than less, $156 million is enough to merit some public attention. Yet, since the Beasley administration, the General Assembly has continued to earmark taxpayer funds for its favorite abstinence-only-until-marriage program providers every year.

The best example is Heritage Community Services, a nonprofit business based in North Charleston. Just 10 years ago and prior to jumping on the abstinence-only-until-marriage bandwagon, Heritage Community Services reported annual revenues of a little more than $50,000. Since that time — due in great measure to the Badgley family’s astute prescience about emerging and potentially profitable state and federal abstinence-only-until-marriage grant streams — Heritage has garnered more than $18 million through state and federal grant revenues. Meanwhile four family members have been compensated: Anne Badgley; her husband, Gordon Badgley; her daughter Sally Badgley Raymond; and Sally’s husband, Jerry Raymond.

Then there is Badgley Enterprises, a separate, for-profit company that is wholly owned by the Badgley family. Badgley Enterprises publishes abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, which Heritage Community Services purchases with (you guessed it) federal and state grant funds. Little wonder why the Badgleys were featured in last June’s issue of The Nation in an article titled “The Abstinence Gluttons.”

Fifteen states have decided to reject federal money for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and to cease state funding that invites contractors such as Heritage into their public schools. These states’ policymakers have looked at abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, as well as the programs’ providers, and determined that their states’ young people deserve better.

Three of these states are fighting very high rates of AIDS, much as we are in South Carolina. Is it possible that legislators in these states feel an overriding moral imperative to provide uncensored and medically accurate information about condoms to their sexually active youth, who are at risk for HIV infection?

In referring to the increase in the nation’s teen birth rate, The State’s editorial laments “These numbers should call us to action — if only we knew how to act.” We do know how to act. There are science-based curricula that have been evaluated extensively and that have demonstrated effectiveness among a variety of demographic groups. The U.S. Surgeon General has even taken a stand in support of comprehensive sex education. What we lack is not knowledge or expertise, but rather the collective will and the political courage that 14 other states have evidenced.

A nationwide survey of public opinion on sex education in U.S. schools, which was published in the November 2006 Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, showed that 82 percent of Americans support comprehensive programs “that teach both abstinence and other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” This mirrors research among South Carolina’s own registered voters, 80 percent of whom want similar programs in our schools.

Between 2000 and 2004, the pregnancy rate for South Carolina girls 18-19 years old was 110.5 per 1,000 girls — more similar to the teen birth rates of Afghanistan, Cambodia and Guatemala than to any other developed nation in the world.

Yet, in the next two months, our legislators — beginning with those who serve on the House Ways and Means Committee — will reconsider investing even more taxpayers’ dollars in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which objective research has shown do not work and which the majority of South Carolina voters do not want.

While journalists may be understandably weary of listening to the wrangling between over-zealous adults who support or oppose sex education, nonetheless South Carolina’s taxpayers cannot afford our Fourth Estate to turn a deaf ear. Too many tax dollars have been wasted. Too many young people need and deserve uncensored, protective health information they’re not getting.

Ms. Adams is executive diretor of New Morning Foundation, a privately funded grant-making foundation, that works to reduce unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections among South Carolina’s young people under age 30.

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