Civil Liberties

Abstinence-Only: America's Latest and Most Dangerous Political Export

Trump administration officials recently attended the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women where, historically, leaders from all around the globe discuss ways to empower women. This year, however, Trump officials took a massive step backward by suggesting the UN support abstinence-based policies worldwide during a closed-door meeting, shocking even some of the officials from historically oppressive nations, such as Russia. Their bewildered reaction was understandable. Research—such as these studies conducted for the Community Preventive Services Task Force, the National Institutes of Health and the Journal of Adolescent Health—has repeatedly found that abstinence-based education doesn’t curb sexual encounters, thwart unintended pregnancies or prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted infections.

For outsiders, the Trump administration’s determination to push such policies, science be damned, may seem absurd. But women know all too well that this White House will go to extremes to control their bodies. The problem is especially horrible for women of color, who continually find themselves the targets of Trump’s hateful comments. A month after the UN meeting, Trump tweeted that undocumented immigrants were using so-called sanctuary cities to carry out a “ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept.” Many interpreted the comment as a racist implication that when they’re not selling drugs, Latin American immigrants are wholly consumed by their uninhibited, primal instinct to fuck. When pressed by journalists during a White House press briefing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied allegations that Trump’s words were racist or problematic.

The White House can lie all it wants, but its policies make it abundantly clear that the administration is hellbent on punishing low-income and marginalized folks. Its fixation with abstinence-based education, which it has since rebranded as Sexual Risk Avoidance Education, is one of the most dangerous and costly methods.

“Because of this abstinence-only framework we know that people, especially the young people who get this education in schools, are uninformed about the risks of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy because they’re basically being deprived of the education, information and access to contraception and other prevention methods,” Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, tells Playboy. “Most abstinence-only curriculum stigmatizes information about contraception or provides no information at all …leaving them without life-saving information and basic skills to have safe and protected sex.”

This is a reality far too many people know. Take Kari O’Driscoll, who grew up in a strict, religious household with limited financial resources. The adults in her life taught her “sexuality was shameful,” and it was the responsibility of the woman to enforce abstinence-only principles in pre-marital relationships.

They’re committed purely to ideology when, in fact, they should be partnering with doctors and medical professionals.

Like many teens, she eventually disregarded her mom’s advice and had sex without having much knowledge about or access to contraception methods. Weeks later, she learned she was pregnant. Without anyone to talk to, she gathered up her savings and drove two hours to the nearest abortion clinic.

“The consequences for me as a female [were big],” she adds. “I mean, my boyfriend did nothing. He didn’t spend a dime on the abortion. He had zero consequences whatsoever…It’d be one thing if the cultural messages we were sending [to men and boys] were, ‘You need to not be having sex either.’ But they’re not. Abstinence education is aimed at girls and women.”

There’s also Noemi M, a queer femme of color, whose Pentecostal family and fiercely conservative school preached that “fornication was evil and our bodies didn’t belong to us; they belonged to our future husbands and to God.” In addition to making the harmful assumption that all students will grow up wanting to be in hetero relationships, Noemi’s education taught her nothing about the basics of sex, such as consent and reproductive health. “When I was younger I believed I got pregnant when I got my period,” she wrote in an email. She’d been molested years prior and feared that “the semen would stay inside” of her. By avoiding comprehensive conversations about sex, we also ignore sexual violence.

Since Trump entered office, his administration has devoted a lot of money to stunt evidence-based sex education both domestically and globally. The proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year allocated nearly $300 million for “voluntary family planning projects” including—you guessed it—abstinence education. Under the proposed guidelines, organizations receiving funds could not use the money on abortions.

We spent $90 million on such programs—which again, don’t work—in 2017 alone. Of course, that amount seems insignificant when you consider the U.S. has spent a combined $3.4 billion on abstinence programs at home and abroad since 1982, largely under Republican leadership. So much for the party of fiscal responsibility.

The U.S., once a leader in science and medicine, is tossing facts and logic aside to push an agenda that demonizes reproductive health.

The government is strategic in where it sends the money, too. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote that its Title V abstinence education grant programs would “focus on those groups that are most likely to bear children out-of-wedlock, such as youth in foster care, runaway and homeless youth, and minority youth populations.”

“There are so many attacks on reproductive rights that disproportionately impact women of color, that disproportionately impact low-income communities—especially in states governed by extremely conservative leadership that follow a doctrine other than science,” Kaylie Hanson Long, national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, tells Playboy. “They’re committed purely to ideology when, in fact, they should be partnering with doctors and medical professionals to make sure that people in communities across the state have access to the resources they need, whether it be comprehensive sex education or reproductive health care.”

The Trump administration is aggressively pushing a similarly discriminatory agenda abroad through the expansion of the “global gag rule,” which prohibits organizations that receive any U.S. foreign health assistance from spending its “non-U.S. funding for anything related to abortion,” Sippel says.

“We have data that shows the last time we had the global gag rule…it was associated with an increase in unsafe abortions, a decrease in access to contraception, and it weakened our HIV/AIDS programs and interventions. Now that it’s applying to all of our global health assistance, we expect the impact to be much more dire,” Sippel tells me. “This is what makes it particularly cruel and egregious. Global health assistance is going to some of the poorest countries around the world to reach the most marginalized in countries.”

Just last week, Trump officially announced a proposal to enforce a domestic version of the global gag rule. If enacted, the government would specifically target providers like Planned Parenthood that receive Title X family planning funding and, by extension, their patients, who increasingly rely on these federally funded organizations as Trump slashes funding to Medicaid and dismantles the Affordable Care Act. The U.S., once a leader in science and medicine, is tossing facts and logic aside to push an agenda that demonizes reproductive health and aims to make racism and classism a global norm.

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