Page 23


POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE Sins of Ideology IGNORANCE UNDRESSED More than 100 speakers got graphic at the State Board of Education hearing on health textbooks July 14. A review panel has endorsed four of the textbooks submitted for approval as meeting Texas standards. At the hearing, however, doctors, parents, and students testified that when it comes to preventing sexually transmitted haven’t got it covered. The full board’s vote in November to accept or reject the textbooks will hinge on whether members find that the books meet state requirements to “analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness” of birth control and “barrier protection” methods like condoms, while “keeping in mind the effectiveness of remaining abstinent until marriage!” Conservative board members Terri Leo \(Rthe books do meet these requirements. “The information is there, as required by law;’ Leo told the board. Texas law does not require sexual education classes. If a school district opts to teach it anyway, they are told to stress abstinence as the preferred method of preventing pregnancy and STDs. Teachers may discuss birth control only in terms of its failure rates, despite the fact that Texas has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. Textbook publishers have learned a lot since they took a wallop from the right during the last round of health textbook hearings in 1994. That time around, a crowd of mostly conservative speakers urged the state board to reject books that contained, among other shockers, a line drawing of a woman giving herself a breast exam. This time, publishers have boned up on how to satisfy state standardsand to court the right-wing element that increasingly controls local school boards across the state. All four textbooks reference “abstinence before marriage” as the number one way to prevent pregnancy and STDs and to avoid “emotional trauma!” One book adds “maintain a good reputation” to the ledger of the chaste. Another textbook, published by Austin-based firm Holt, Rinehart and Winston, lists “getting plenty of rest” and “going out with a group” as ways to prevent STDs, but does not mention condoms, dental dams, or other forms of barrier protection. Only one textbook uses the word “condom”; others contain fleeting references to “barrier protection;’ only to discredit the method immediately as prone to failure. And none of the books contains a precise definition of “sexual activity,” leaving students more or less ignorant about what it is, exactly, that they are supposed to be abstaining from. Waco high school student Erin Pack urged the board to reject the books. Pack says her abstinence-only health class provided students with no information about avoiding pregnancy or STDs other than scare tactics designed to frighten students out of having sex. “We were told ‘If you have sex, you will get an STD, period,” Pack said. Abstinence-only proponents supported the four textbooks, telling the board that since no contraceptive is 100 percent effective, it’s misleading to tell teens they can have “safe” sex. Speakers suggested that “comprehensive sex education”which includes material about contraception and condomsis linked to higher rates of STDs, teen pregnancy, and suicide. \(Peer-reviewed medical studies show that comprehensive sexual education either has no effect on teen sexuality or may some”Sex is more dangerous for teenagers than smoking;’ says Dr. Joe Mcllhaney, founder of the Austin-based Medical Institute on Sexual Health, which publishes pamphlets and videos about the dangers of condoms and benefits of abstinence. But other experts say the abstinence-only view doesn’t reflect reality. “We feel that adolescents should remain abstinent,” says Dr. David Wiley, president of the Texas School Health Association. “We also recognize the reality of life, in that some day these students will need this information. Where are they supposed to learn this information if not in high school?” Abstinence-only advocates point to studies showing that the real-world protection rates of condoms are considerably worse than the rates found under perfect laboratory con ditions. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has found that latex condoms are highly effective in preventing gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV/AIDS when used correctly. Of course, before you can use them correctly, someone has to teach you how. And while condoms may not be perfect, the abstinence approach has a few holes in it, too. A study published in the 2001 Journal of American Sociology found that 88 percent of teens who took the “virginity pledge” favored by the abstinence-only crowd did have sex before they were married and were about as likely to contract an STD as their un-pledged peers. The major difference between those who took a virginity pledge and those who did not: former pledgers were less likely to use contraception, less likely to know when they had an STD, and less likely to get an STD test. The board will hold one more public hearing on the books on September 8. More to come. FUTURE LEADERS CON GANAS It’s safe to assume that most high school kids don’t spend their summers pondering Medicaid policy or brainstorming ways to spur economic development. For that matter, neither do most adults. For a select 18 or so high schoolers in El Paso every year, however, summer is a time to investigate, analyze, and offer solutions to the most pressing public policy problems facing their community and their state. In 1998, State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh \(D-El wife of El Scholars program, run by a nonprofit of the same name. Every summer, the organization hires high school students for an eight-week paid internship in public policy. The students, who are already in the top 20 percent of their class, must go through a rigorous process of interviews and research exercises in order to be accepted into the program. They are then assigned to topic groups, and, during the next two months, they morph into teenage policy wonks. This summer, for example, high school sophomores and juniors examined the enormous overhaul of the state’s Health and Human 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7/30/04