Christian Right Pushes Abstinence-Only Education Internationally

About Alex DiBranco

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Australians send a message about condoms during a visit by the Pope. Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images

In 2003, the Christian Right shifted the foreign aid policy of the United States so that it promotes abstinence-only education abroad through HIV/AIDS relief grants channeled to the Christian Right base of the George W. Bush Administration. An Institute of Medicine report confirms that these programs are one of the biggest obstacles to challenging the global HIV/AIDs epidemic, which sees five million new cases of HIV each year.

Even so, in July both Houses of Congress renewed the legislation, called President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Rather than reversing its mandate that one third of prevention spending go to abstinence only (before marriage) education, the new law signed by President Bush in July, instead requires groups to explain in writing why they are not spending half of their grants on abstinence or faithfulness programs.

The rest of prevention funding follows the “ABC” format: abstinence, be faithful, and use condoms, with emphasis on the first two—even in populations of sex workers or drug users who contract the disease through shared needles.

While David Bryden of the Global AIDS Alliance is optimistic that the new legislation will be less restrictive than the original, particularly if a Democratic Congress and president view the reporting requirement as a mere formality, other groups are more upset.

“There was a lack of political will among the Democratic leadership to actually fight the Bush administration, and its supporters in Congress, to get rid of the inappropriate and dysfunctional emphasis on abstinence and marriage prevention,” says William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the U.S.

Ellen Marshall, International Women’s Health Coalition consultant on U.S. foreign policy issues, says the conscience clause allows organizations to “pick and choose who they serve based on any type of moral judgment they might have…we’re stuck with that for five years; we’ve written into law discrimination.”

The original law created an industry of Christian Right groups which provide literature on abstinence tied to their religious views, and support biased radio and TV programs that say that condoms are unsafe in the fight against AIDS. School programs funded by the grants push sexually active young people to “return to abstinence” and are banned from providing condoms. This poses immense danger to the 19 million adolescents already engaging in sex in countries under PEPFAR’s purview. James Wagoner, president of the HIV peer-education organization Advocates for Youth, told a Boston Globe reporter, “It is a public health disgrace when we are creating a climate of fear around the most effective prevention tool for sexually active young people.”

In somewhat milder terms, the Institute of Medicine found that the focus on abstinence education should be rethought as insufficient due to the “early average age of sexual debut (and sometimes marriage) in many countries.” Women also suffer disproportionately from the restrictions on condom education and distribution, since even getting married does not protect thermoform husband’s extramarital affairs, which they are not empowered to stop, nor can they to choose whether or not to have sex.

“Generally, African societies are conservative on issues of sex,” says Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, a Political Research Associates researcher and Anglican priest who saw the programs in action while promoting condom use in Africa. “Sex education was not something that was discussed in public. By avoiding discussing sex, ‘abstinence-only’ enforces male dominated African cultural norms.”

While some groups have refused to adhere to PEPFAR restrictions and thus lost funding, others have been refused contracts simply due to their secular nature or inclusion of accurate condom information in their ABC education. Instead, a Boston Globe exposé two years ago showed money is funneled to predominantly Christian organizations, even those with skills sets deemed “non suitable,” motivating Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman of California to say it “raises questions of political cronyism.” Kristin Kalla, who manages the AIDS contract for CARE, an organization that has worked with the U.S. government to aid the poor for decades, was compelled to fund religious aid groups in order to secure its government contact. Kalla then was told that they had to be the “right types” of faith-based organizations – not the Jewish and Muslim ones she had offered grants, but Christian groups such as Samaritan’s Purse, whose CEO and president, Rev. Franklin Graham, is a close friend of Bush.

Alex DiBranco is a Sociology PhD Candidate at Yale University, writing her dissertation on the U.S. New Right movement infrastructure from 1971-1997. She is a member of The Public Eye editorial board and formerly PRA's Communications Director, and is currently visiting at the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.