As part of the month-long Cleveland Humanities Festival, President & CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio Iris E. Harvey visited campus to discuss comprehensive sex education. Her talk, “Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: The Politics of Contraception and Sex Education,” was also a Dittrick Medical History Center 2018 Percy Skuy Lecture.
Along with leadership positions in Greater Ohio, Harvey has been a board member of Planned Parenthood Federation of America since April 2015.
In her March 22 lecture, Harvey first discussed the policy of abstinence-only education in the United States and its political implications over the course of recent history.
“Abstinence-only-until-marriage [AOUM] was first introduced into legislation in 1981 with the passing of the Adolescent Family Life Act [AFLA],” she said, “and it was known by its nickname as ‘The Chastity Law.’”
According to Harvey, the AFLA preached “only one acceptable form of family planning,” which was a refusal of sexual intercourse.
She went onto explain that the AFLA was included in the Welfare Bill during the Clinton Administration without any senate hearings or floor votes. Its focus was on “teen pregnancy, chastity and abstinence-until-marriage.”
Similar policies were elaborated and doubled-down on under the Bush Administration, who introduced an eight-point criteria for sex education. This criteria considered sex outside of marriage as “mentally and physically harmful” and held that the only context for sex was in a “mutually faithful monogamous marriage,” among other points.
The initiative targeted individuals aged twelve to 29, with all aspects of the plan mandated to be taught in every sex ed class.
“Some of you out here are probably doing something they don’t want you to do [under the initiative],” Harvey said, emphasizing the strict nature of the initiative’s protocols.
Comprehensive sex ed policies were then introduced by the Obama Administration, including the Teen Pregnancy Protection Program (TPP). A key difference between these policies is that the TPP’s foundational principles were explicitly to be drawn off of evidence-based and factual data, unlike previous policies which were derived from moral principles. Despite this, AOUM policies still have a large presence in sex ed.
Once she established a historical background, Harvey got down to the “good stuff.”
“So we’ve talked a lot about abstinence,” Harvey said, “but really we’re here to talk about sex, right?”
Comprehensive sex ed, to be specific. These programs, according to Harvey, teach evidence-based content regarding aspects of sex and sexuality, giving students the tools to navigate and develop healthy relationships and personal values.
“[It is important to teach these topics] regardless of what you want young people to do,” Harvey argued. “You have to make sure that [young people] can do the right thing when they may do something [that contradicts your personal beliefs].”
Although 41 percent of high school students engage in sexual intercourse, those students do not necessarily practice “safe sex,” or “sex with contraception use,” according to Harvey. In the state of Ohio, 60 percent of pregnancies are “unwanted and unintended,” but among the previously mentioned demographic, she said this number rises to 90 percent. Harvey also described the relationship between youth pregnancy and decreased schooling, as well as the “cycle of poverty.”
Due to the implementation of practices like comprehensive sex ed and increased contraceptive use, Harvey said policies are intended to lower these numbers. A recent decrease in teen pregnancy, for example, has been overwhelmingly credited to these programs.
“All of these organizations cannot be wrong about [comprehensive sex ed],” Harvey said.
Throughout the lecture, the well-being and involvement of young people in sexual health and reproductive rights were also topical areas she stressed.
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the CWRU School of Law Jessie Hill gave opening remarks for Harvey before the lecture. Hill said she believes that young people can be very effective in promoting access to comprehensive sex education.
“I think the most important thing you can do if you’re interested in these issues is to begin learning everything you can about them,” Hill said. “You will impress people who might be able to give you an opportunity to work or volunteer in the field.”
The Cleveland Humanities Festival is coordinated by the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and will have events running through April 13.