Sunday, September 7

:: Sarah Palin & Sex Education

As someone who spends much of her professional time working on policy issues surrounding sex education, I know how hard it is to find straight answers. 

Ever since Senator McCain announced his choice of Governor Palin, and especially since the fact of Governor Palin's imminent grandparenthood was revealed, we've heard over and over again about her support for abstinence-only sex education programs.  Much of the shaming and blaming has been justified by pointing to Palin's abstinence-only position.  To back up the charge that she supports abstinence-only, the shamers and blamers frequently referred to her answer to a questionnaire during the 2006 gubernatorial campaign in which she was asked whether she supported "explicit sex-ed programs."  Palin's written reply was, "Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support."

But the Los Angeles Times ran a story yesterday that makes this tale more complicated. Apparently, a few weeks after filling out the questionnaire.... August of that year, Palin was asked during a KTOO radio debate if "explicit" programs include those that discuss condoms.  Palin said no and called discussions of condoms "relatively benign."

"Explicit means explicit," she said. "No, I'm pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues. So I am not anti-contraception. But, yeah, abstinence is another alternative that should be discussed with kids. I don't have a problem with that. That doesn't scare me, so it's something I would support also."
I don't think I've actually heard her say anything recently that contradicts this - not that she would, since the conservative, pro-life part of the Republican base loves her, and to reaffirm this position now would be a slap in their collective face.  But it's important to remember that the facts people repeat because they "seem" true often aren't, and that the media loves telling the narrative that they want to tell, as Bob Somersby reminds us.

One important, verifiable fact that has been missing in action is that Alaska is not an abstinence-only state in terms of the one source of federal abstinence-only money that goes directly to the states, the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage grants. There are currently 25 states that are no longer participating in this program, including Alaska. 

Most of the states not participating in the abstinence-only-until-marriage grant program have decided not to do so because it conflicts with other public health priorities and because there has been little to no evidence to show that such programs are effective. That being said, it is possible that Alaska turned down the money for administrative reasons (according to the SIECUS state profile of Alaska, it looks like no one applied for the funds so the program ceased operating).  Or, possibly not applying for the money was their way of "opting-out."

There are other sources of federal abstinence-only money, including the Community Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program, and Alaska has one grantee that receives that funding. CBAE grantees can and often do provide programs in schools. Alaska doesn't have any laws that govern sex education and/or HIV/STD prevention in schools.

Sex education is an incredibly local issue so it's hard to say even from all of this what is taught in a specific school, except in those states that have very specific health curriculum standards.  But even the most detailed curriculum standards tend to be general enough to allow for variation from school to school. In fact, one of the biggest challenges faced by sex education advocates in states with good laws and/or good health education standards is that there is often no way to enforce the rules - it's hard to know what goes on in each school, and even if one can prove that a school is out of compliance, there are often no penalties in place.

All of which is to say that while I personally don't think it's at all relevant, we basically have no idea what kind of sex education Bristol Palin got at school or at home and whether her mother's public policies or familial sex education failed. As others have pointed out, she may have used contraception that failed, or she may have wanted to get pregnant. We simply don't know, and it's not fair to use the fact that her teenage daughter is pregnant to attack Sarah Palin's policy positions, which may not even be what so many liberals think they are. 

And what if it turns out that her high school had a comprehensive sex ed program? Would we be so quick to call that a failure?


ladybec said...

Just wanted to post another link on the sex ed topic (see the end of the article):

Apparently, Palin said as recently as last week that she doesn't support abstinence-only education, though I certainly don't remember seeing that quoted very widely when talking about her teenage daughter's pregnancy and using that to criticize her views.

And I do think it's interesting that as strongly "pro-life" as she is identified as being, she didn't invest her political capital in fighting for those issues (as the rest of the article discusses).

Anonymous said...

Is palin dumb or dumber on the republican's dumb/dumber ticket this fall?

Did you see the interview? Sweet Jesus. Talk about looking like a complete idiot. She is Bush in a skirt.

God help us all if she is elected.

Ciccina said...

No, Bush in a skirt would be Bush in a skirt. Sarah Palin is an individual human being.

Also, Bush is pro-abstinence only, while Palin is not. In addition, to compare the two at similar points in their careers, the governor of Alaska has a lot more executive power that Bush did as the governor of Texas. Also, Palin isn't a former alcoholic hard-drug user with a record of flunking off of boards of directors and ruining businesses. In addition, Palin is familiar with the lifestyle of middle class and working class people, whereas Bush was "born with a silver foot in his mouth." The Palins are the kind of people who are affected by government policy - for example, by serving in the military - while the Bushes are the kind of people who are elite enough to float above it when it inconveniences them (for example, by finagling cushy ways to avoid military service).

Palin is the kind of person who is on the receiving end of history, whereas Bush is the kind of person who watches history happen to other people. That is a fundamental difference between the two and is likely to distinguish her orientation towards policy and decision making from his.

Class matters. And that's just for starters.

RS said...

I am not sure I'd agree with your characterization that Palin is not pro-abstinence-only. So she says "explicit is explicit... I am pro-contraception."

a. How exactly does one teach contraception without being explicit? [I must say I am surprised to be the one to bring this up. You have a lot more experience at this than I.]

b. See this article, I am sure you are very familiar with the reasoning that pregnancy is not the only thing to be worried about:

Reminds me of an episode of Becker, where (middle-school?) kids ask all sorts of questions. "I heard you can't get pregnant through sex standing-up" etc.

At best, Palin appears indifferent; at worst, she doesn't appear to have thought things through (not surprising).

Say what you want about W, but I do admire his approach to immigration - his time in TX seems to have instilled some sense. I don't expect that from the Middle-America, Jane and Joe Sixpack-types that Governor Palin enthuses so, nor from their hero.

And yes, you can call me a liberal elitist, though I personally think I am moving to a Goldwater-ish position. Which in itself might be elitist. Oh well.