Kentucky’s Abstinence-only Programs Raise Concerns

Abstinence-only-until-marriage progams come under fire

Abstinence-only-until-marriage progams come under fire

Our friends at the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice have been talking to us about a report from SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, on the status of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in Kentucky. It’s a picture that raises a number of concerns.

The abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in use in the state substitute for comprehensive sexuality education, which is not required by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The programs have not been shown to be effective in accomplishing the purposes for which educational programs aimed at young people presumably are undertaken: getting young people to delay sexual activity, reducing numbers of teen pregnancies, reducing rates of sexually transmitted diseases. Popular curricula do, however, incorporate religious messages in ways that make the school systems in effect supporting one particular religious outlook over others, violating the constitutional protection of religious freedom. They also use fear- and shame-based appeals to convince young people that sexual activity before marriage will hurt them and their chances for a normal, happy life in the future. Many emphasize the use of virginity pledges. (SIECUS’ summary profile of Kentucky recaps many of these highlights. Details are in the full report.)

A further concern is that the federal money for these programs comes with strings attached. The Commonwealth of Kentucky must spend money to get it. At present, the Commonwealth meets its obligation by funding Crisis Pregnancy Centers — agencies that represent themselves as helping women in crisis, but which do so by restricting these women’s access to information about and access to options other than carrying their pregnancy to term. That is, they aim to control women’s decisions about their reproductive life by controlling women’s access to the facts.

We can’t help but see this situation as a problem.

We can’t help but see state sponsorship of particular religious positions as a bad thing — for the church. (After all, the Barmen Declaration is part of the constitution of the PC(USA). It seems we should have learned by now that ultimately, the more the church depends upon the state to promulgate its message, the more the state will demand of the church in the way of support for its positions. That’s a bad bargain.)

We can’t help but see the use of an educational curriculum that doesn’t accomplish its stated purposes, and that reinforces gender stereotypes and dispenses misinformation in the process, as unacceptable.

A coalition of groups is forming to call on the Commonwealth to say “no” to the money it receives for these problematic abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. A preferable alternative could be education focused on prevention, in the context of faith-based organizations themselves –the option KRCRC supports.

We’ve heard that Congress may be considering prevention-oriented alternatives as well, in the form of H.R. 819, the Prevention First Act, which was introduced in this session. (More on H.R. 819, Prevention First Act)

Stay tuned for more.

[Source for the graphic: Advocates for Youth]

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Subjectivity and Suffering

 Since Sunday night, I’ve been returning to and thinking about Johanna Bos’s address “In a Just Nation.”  [An address to the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, at the dinner to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.]  It was an address with staying power – ideas, images, implications that return and remain, and perhaps even provoke to practical action.

I woke up this morning thinking about the scene depicted in Sherry Tepper’s novel The Gates to Women’s Country that Johanna quoted – and about what it meant.  That there are places where women marry, or feel duty-bound to engage in sexual relationships, much too young.  That there are men, and women, who have sex with one another in ways that have nothing at all to do with encountering each other as unique and precious individuals, but instead are about the exercise of privilege and disprivilege, performances of power or of joyless obligation, that are pre-scripted, pre-scribed, almost like bureaucracy in the bedroom.  That there are lots of ways to ignore obvious human suffering, to fail to let expressions of human suffering change anything.

The question of whether realizing that people are suffering will impel people to change anything seems to be at stake in the invocation of female genital cutting, too.  Here is a practice, a widespread one (Johanna cited a statistic that estimates 130-140 million women in the world today have been affected, some 60,000 of them in the US) that hurts everyone involved in it, in various ways, but that continues in spite of that hurt.  Why?  Because the felt imperative to control overwhelms, subjugates whatever impulse to acknowledge, to respond with compassion to, human suffering?  (But what?? is being controlled?  Can we name that?  Can we begin to understand that?)

So I thought:  the ethics of the situation are not really complicated.  The ethical position is the one that is in solidarity with the person who, right now, is screaming in pain.  [I think Theodor Adorno would agree, by the way – I cite Negative Dialectics, p. 365]  What that means for practical action, how to make the world change, can be complicated and not entirely clear, I agree.  But the ethical position isn’t. 

This is to come at Johanna’s point from a slightly different angle.  Johanna’s point, that is, that “women are subjects, and recognizing women’s subjectivity is necessary in a just nation – and a just world.”  She made that point by noticing, along with Susan Bordo, that the discourse around reproductive choice, reproductive rights, and, in the contemporary US, abortion, increasingly erases the subjectivity of the pregnant woman.  Our public conversations about abortion, and the laws that flow out of them, more and more make of the pregnant woman a physical thing, a body or a container for the real subject, the fetus.  Johanna spoke of regression, a collective backing away from securing women’s rights to choose reproductivity freely, to make decisions for ourselves about sexual behavior, motherhood, and the relationships in which those occur, a regression that represents a continuing reluctance to recognize women’s subjectivity.

But it’s no coincidence, it seems to me, that Johanna’s examples all had the thread of suffering running through them.  Because one of the first casualties of recognizing someone else’s subjectivity is the ability to respond to, care about, try to relieve their suffering.  Someone could see, hear, register the plain signs of suffering, and not acknowledge it as [real] suffering, because suffering takes a subject.  For suffering, hardship, the experience of injustice to provoke people to end it, it has to be someone’s suffering. 

So we need to keep saying, reminding, insisting:  women are someones.  [I think the Bible would agree, by the way – I cite Genesis 1:27]

Reproductive Choice

 It would be easy, in the present climate, to get the idea that the ethics of reproductive choice begins and ends with deciding which of the two (count ‘em, two) available positions on abortion one is going to take.  The high visibility, high stakes, yes-or-no discourse around abortion caricatures the actual practical, complex and profound ethical demands women and men face in making reproductive choices.  These begin, not needless to say, with whether or not to engage in reproductive activity at all – which presupposes, but isn’t identical with, the decision to engage in specific forms of sexual activity – and run through all the choices people face in the course of pursuing or fleeing the concrete demands of becoming the progenitors, the biological mothers and fathers, of other human beings.  The decision to continue, or terminate, a pregnancy that has already begun is only one of these choices, though it is arguably the most politicized of these choices.  [For instance, whether to regulate infertility treatment options has not become a litmus test for judicial appointments, and pundits almost never solicit a candidate’s position on funding basic research to improve male contraceptive options.]

The Women’s Center has recently begun to devote more of its programming and reflective resources to the overarching issue of reproductive choice.  This renewed interest reflects both a growing interest in issues surrounding the large issue of reproductive choice on the LPTS campus, and our growing recognition of the way reproductive choice is implicated in almost every issue of significance to women. 

[Reproductive choice, for instance, depends initially on education and the liberation of women’s and men’s minds from ignorance.  Something as basic as literacy – of which rates all over the world vary systematically by sex – plays a part in reproductive choice.  A woman who can’t read an informative pamphlet, or the directions and warnings on a bottle of medication, already faces a significant limitation on her reproductive choices.]

This week, the Women’s Center again turns its attention to the matter of reproductive choice, as Dr. Johanna Van-Wijk Bos will be the keynote speaker at the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s annual Roe v. Wade celebration dinner.  Complete details and a schedule of the event are available here

We await Dr. Bos’s talk with interest.  We’re also looking forward to going beyond the binary agenda set by contemporary public discourse and thinking more deeply over the course of the next several months about the meaning of reproductive choice, in its full scope, for women.