The Politics of Abstinence: The missing story in Colorado

Colorado’s new sex education bill became law on July 1 with little fanfare despite the verbal fireworks set off when state legislators debated the issue last spring.

The new law requires that if a public school district chooses to provide age-appropriate sex education to students that it must use a science-based curriculum. It does not ban abstinence-only programs as critics have angrily stated and the local media erroneously reported. In fact, an analysis of news stories on the bill and its subsequent signing by Governor Bill Ritter, points to a slew of inaccurate, under-developed, and quite slanted reports in print and broadcast media across the state.

Numerous stories and commentary led with ridiculous claims, including this whopper by state Senator Shawn Mitchell who complained to the Rocky Mountain News in April that the measure would lead to a “comprehensive condom, contraception, and copulation” curriculum.

What the stories don’t reveal is that the Broomfield lawmaker and his conservative allies — Senators Josh Penry, Scott Renfroe, and Steve Ward who also voted against the bill — represent six of the nine organizations that received 73 percent of the $309,575 in federal funds that have thus far been disbursed for abstinence-only programming by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, which oversees the $488,314 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The remaining funds are reserved for second year grants as well as to cover the state’s administrative costs.

Another aspect missed by the media is that the amended bill relieves schools receiving federal abstinence-only grants from having to adopt the new curriculum standards. Additionally, the new law carries a provision requiring districts to create an opt-out process allowing a student, at the request of their parent or guardian, to be exempted from the class on the basis of religious or personal beliefs. None of which was included in the local news coverage.

Further undermining conservative criticism that Colorado schools and parents demand programs that advocate chastity over comprehensive reproductive health is that it doesn’t appear that communities are clamoring for federal dollars to support abstinence-only classes.

In 2004, the state was awarded $498,756 in federal funds to support abstinence-only programs operated by eight organizations over a two-year period. This year, six of the previously funded projects in Pueblo, Highlands Ranch, Longmont, Durango and Denver did not renew their contracts. Likewise, the current year contracts are significantly smaller than in previous years.

Tomorrow: The impact of state and national media misinformation on reproductive health stories.