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Palmetto federally funded abstinence curriculum used inaccuracies in line with guidelines

UPDATE: Oct. 6 Amended with a correction.

A new congressional proposal to funnel federal grant money from sex-education programs that instruct in pregnancy and STI-preventive measures into abstinence-only curriculum evokes memories of a similar federally-mandated initiative that emerged during the Bush administration.

The Bush-era Community Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program received criticism for peddling medical inaccuracies (PDF) and faded upon the advent of the Obama administration. One beneficiary of grant funding was the Palmetto Family Council, whose abstinence-only education curriculum relied heavily on some of the same points criticized throughout the duration of the CBAE program.

In 2008, a government report (PDF) cited the ineffectiveness of CBAE abstinence-only sex-ed programs. At the end of 2009, the Obama administration reduced abstinence-only spending, boosted spending for prevention-oriented programs and totally wiped out the CBAE program, the most controversial of the bunch because funding largely went to anti-abortion-rights organizations and crisis pregnancy centers. Between 2005 and 2009, the federal government expended almost a half-billion dollars in non-matching CBAE grants, according to the federal 2010 budget (PDF).

South Carolina’s Focus on the Family affiliate the Palmetto Family Council (PFC) received $1.2 million in CBAE support in 2008-09 for their abstinence-education project, which went to great lengths in linking sex outside of marriage to depression, according to grant documents recently obtained by The American Independent through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

‘Sex is fire’

Hitting all points of the Bush administration’s eight-point A-H definition of abstinence-only sex education, PFC’s BTrue Youth Leadership Project was designed to dissuade teenagers from having premarital sex by teaching sexual activity within the context of a monogamous marriage is the expected American standard and sex outside of marriage will likely lead to harmful psychological and physical effects.

PFC contracted Charleston, S.C.-based Heritage Community Services to develop the curriculum, which uses a risk-elimination rather than a risk-prevention model, employing the analogy that “sex is fire.” Essentially, the message is that sex, like fire, is safe within the right place but unsafe outside a protected place. In this analogy, the safe, protected place is marriage.

Illustrating this philosophy is a student video on the still-functioning BTrue social-media network (WhyBeTrue.com), in which a boy is shown armed with a helmet and layers of protective gear before he plunges into oncoming traffic; another scene shows the same boy wearing only regular clothes but walking on the shoulder of the highway, out of harm’s way.

To carry out the BTrue program, Palmetto solicited help from church organizations statewide for access to students and meeting spaces. Alex Morales signed a letter saying that his Lino, S.C.-based organization Same Page Ministries would provide access to between 50 and 100 students. Ultimately, Morales provided access to one student, his son, Danny, who serves as the face of the lecture series.

The first lesson of the curriculum begins with Danny explaining the project’s connection to religion:

The message of abstinence of sex until marriage is not a religious message per say. A decision to wait is a decision made every day, by teens of all faiths, and by those who profess no religious faith or belief in God at all. But BTrue is also consistent with the principles of the Christian faith and other religious beliefs. In the BTrue Tube videos, we do not reference the Bible or the teachings of Christ, but we believe that the BTrue cause is a Christian cause.

Organizations such as Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Youth*, which works for adolescent reproductive and sexual health, and the Sexuality Information Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) have condemned the CBAE program and its biggest curriculum writer, Heritage Community Services, because they claim the program is ineffective at preventing teen pregnancy and STIs, and because it often wields a faith-based component. When asked for comment on Palmetto’s project, Advocates for Life’s Emily Bridges chose to comment on CBAE projects generally.

“We find a ‘one size fits all’ approach to morality to be really problematic,” Bridges said. “Waiting until marriage is a moral goal for many young people, but not ALL young people. Delaying sex until a time when the young person is prepared for safer sex and in a committed relationship is not only a goal that fits within many people’s ideology/moral beliefs, but is also a way the young person can protect themselves from pregnancy, HIV, and STIs. And to do that, they need education about all their options, not just one option.”

Sex outside of marriage = depression

The curriculum, along federal guidelines, focused on the harmful psychological effects of sexual activity outside of marriage.

In PFC’s grant application, curriculum plans were outlined to discuss the “sex related regret & emotional pain” and the “connection between teen sex and depression.” It was encouraged to discuss the importance of beginning the wedding day “regret-free.” The curriculum design also mentioned plans to address “risky behaviors that come with teen sexual activity: alcohol, drugs and violence” and that “marriage decreases such stresses.”

A December 2004 report (PDF) commissioned for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on the efficacy of sex-ed programs such as Palmetto’s outlines specific problems with CBAE, among them medical inaccuracy, such as baseless claims that sex outside of marriage leads to depression and/or mental illness.

Waxman’s report, which evaluated 13 sex-ed curricula, demonstrated that 11 of them included distorted information about the effectiveness of contraceptives and the risks of abortion. The report also found these curricula often blurred religion and science and stereotyped males and females.

In October 2006, the Government Accountability Office released a report (PDF) on the federal government’s efforts to assess the accuracy and effectiveness of federally-funded programs. The report found the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration of Children and Families, which awards CBAE grants, did not review its grantees’ education materials for scientific accuracy. Following this revelation, grantees — including PFC — were forced to sign forms declaring their curricula were “medically accurate.”

In May 2008, both PFC President Oran P. Smith and Heritage Community Services CEO Anne Badgley signed a statement declaring: “I hereby attest and certify that all medical materials proposed in this application and funded during the project period of this grant are medically accurate.”

Stan Weed, director of the Institute for Research & Evaluation (IRE), was identified in grant documents as the “3rd party independent evaluator” tasked to review PFC’s project and curriculum. As TAI reported previously, IRE had a relationship with Heritage; specifically Weed developed the “predictors of adolescent sexual initiation,” which is taught to Heritage educators during their training. In the end Weed did not work on the project; Paul Birch, now a senior research associate at Evans Evaluation, whose name is not mentioned in the grant application, was the evaluator.

Abstinence and marriage

Abstinence and marriage are promoted at seemingly equal rates throughout Palmetto’s curriculum. At the end of the second lesson, there are three videos where participating adult staffers discuss what abstinence means to them. One woman, talking about how she rediscovered abstinence after she first started having sex, emphasized how much fun marriage is.

In another the video, a student says marriage between a man and woman is beautiful, which is in direct compliance with CBAE requirements that mandate a one-man, one-woman definition of marriage.

The only way to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy, Palmetto’s programs materials suggested, is through marriage. But as Bridges pointed out, that does not leave a lot of room for people who do not necessarily intend to get married, or for gay men and lesbians, for whom marriage in many states is illegal.

“Any program that asks young people to wait until marriage to have sex is inappropriate for gay and lesbian young people, who can’t get married in most states and at the federal level,” Bridges said in an email. “They are being at best ignored and made to feel invisible. They’re being given a choice to either stop being gay; never have sex in their life; or become shameful, emotionally harmed, etc. … They need sex education that helps them protect themselves, not lectures about abstinence until a marriage they can’t legally enter into.”

An excerpt from PFC’s grant proposal, describing how it will promote “healthy marriage,” reads:

A-H legislation is about healthy marriages. PYN [Palmetto Youth Network] will equip youth and adults with skills/knowledge to [1] abstain from sex until marriage, [2] develop healthy relationships and marriages and [3] remain faithful when married. Since 1994, Palmetto Family Council has worked to strengthen SC’s families. Its mission is to promote a positive marriage/family culture by utilizing media and existing community, business and faith networks to promote an understanding of marriage’s central role to the fabric of society and to provide the skills/knowledge needed to form and sustain healthy marriages. … [Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education] teaches students the differences between lust, infatuation and love and the differences in cohabitation and marriage. *Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions from the Social Sciences *is basic to all curricula.

The “Why Marriage Matters” report (PDF) Palmetto referred to as being “basic to all curricula” in the project was produced by the Institute for American Values, and infused with research and editorial assistance by Maggie Gallagher, who recently stepped down as president of the nation’s leading group working against marriage for gay men and lesbians, the National Organization for Marriage. In 2007, PFC was involved in a campaign to amend South Carolina’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The amendment passed in 2007; it was listed as Palmetto Family’s “top priority” the year before.

**Correction: TAI previously mis-identified the organization Advocates for Youth as Advocates for Life. We regret the error. *

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