Arguing that it promotes “dangerous medical inaccuracies about pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted diseases” and “sends an inappropriate message to students from non-traditional households,” thirteen organizations today called on public high school principals and superintendents in the state to reject use of a questionable federally-funded “abstinence only until marriage” sex education program recently approved by the RI Department of Education. The private program at issue is run by Heritage Rhode Island (HRI). Among the diverse groups signing the letter to school officials were the RI Medical Society, the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the RI Academy of Family Physicians, AIDS Project Rhode Island and Youth Pride.

In a two-page letter sent to school officials, the organizations emphasize that they “do not oppose teaching abstinence to high school students. However, your students deserve information that is medically accurate, and not based on fear or shame or on stigmatizing teenagers who come from non-traditional households. They deserve information that will help them protect themselves from STDs, HIV and unintended pregnancy when they become sexually active. From our perspective, however, the HRI curriculum fails these basic goals.” Because HRI receives its funding through a federal “abstinence-only-until marriage” initiative, it must adhere to stringently defined criteria required by that initiative. Among other things, HRI must teach that sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong and harmful to people of any age. The program is also barred from teaching about contraceptive methods except to emphasize failure rates. However, the state Department of Education’s comprehensive health education standards require students to demonstrate the ability to engage in “responsible behaviors such as contraceptive [and] condom use,” and to demonstrate an understanding that “gays and lesbians can establish fulfilling committed relationships.”

The letter from the organizations notes that just last month a Congressionally-commissioned report raised serious questions about the efficacy of abstinence-only programs like HRI, finding that teens who participated in such programs were just as likely to have sex as teens who did not participate. The letter includes a fact sheet showing that many students in Rhode Island public high schools are already engaging in sexual behaviors, and that by failing to teach them how to protect themselves from unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, the HRI curriculum “endangers the health and lives of young people.” Thus far, only a few schools have allowed the curriculum into their classrooms.

The groups signing the letter were: AIDS Care Ocean State, AIDS Project Rhode Island, National Association of Social Workers/R.I., PFLAG South/Central Rhode Island,  Planned Parenthood of R.I., the R.I. Academy of Family Physicians, the R.I. ACLU, the R.I. Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence,  R.I. Medical Society, R.I. NOW, R.I. Island Teen Pregnancy Coalition, and Youth Pride.

Currently, no federal funds are dedicated to supporting sexuality education that both teaches abstinence and includes complete and medically accurate information about how to use contraceptives effectively, despite evidence that these programs can delay sexual activity and increase contraceptive use among teens. Congress will soon be considering whether to continue funding the current “abstinence-only” grant program.