The anti-abortion game of life

To bring down the high chlamydia infections rate among Tennessee teenagers, an anti-abortion pregnancy center in Athens, Tenn., has proposed spending federal tax dollars on a life-sized version of the Game of Life.

The “Teen Life Maze” is just one of the ideas put forth by a cluster of crisis pregnancy centers that are receiving government grants to conduct abstinence education as part of President Obama’s health-care reform law.

Records obtained by The American Independent show that the government is paying for abstinence programs run by centers that promote dubious medical information. For example, crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) receiving funding through the program claim that “reliable studies” have shown a link between abortion and breast cancer.

One of the centers says it seeks to help students understand “the lack of effectiveness of condoms/birth control in STD protection and pregnancy.”

TAI previously reported that a South Dakota anti-abortion CPC that requires its volunteers to be Christians received funding under a program created by Obama’s stimulus bill.

Between 1996 and 2009, taxpayers spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-only education, paid for by federal grants and state matching funds, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. In 2004, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) released a report that found that these programs often contained false or distorted information about sex and reproductive health, such as claiming that condoms have a high failure rate at preventing HIV and pregnancy, women who have abortions have a high risk of becoming sterile, and HIV can be transmitted through sweat and tears.

Shortly after taking office, Obama moved to cut off federal funding for most abstinence-only education.

However, during the intense negotiations over the health-care-reform bill in 2009 and 2010, Congress attached a $250 million grant program for abstinence-only instruction (granting up to $50 million annually, through 2014). Under the program, state health departments apply for abstinence funding and can then allocate sub-awards to various organizations across the state, including county health departments, schools, community groups, and faith-based nonprofits.

So far, at least three anti-abortion CPCs have received funding through this provision. They’re all in Tennessee, which has the nation’s 11th highest teen birth rate, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In January, the Tennessee Department of Health announced it was dividing $3.2 million in abstinence funding among 13 agencies through 2014 to “support comprehensive, evidence-based and medically accurate community-based education programs.”

A total of about $650,000 of that money was awarded to the three CPCs: Full Circle Women’s Services in Athens, Life Choices Pregnancy Support Center in Dyersburg, and Women’s Care Center of Rhea County, Inc., in Dayton. Per the terms of the grant program, each grant recipient has to match 75 percent of the award.

When they’re not teaching teens not to have sex, these centers are seeing women – sometimes teens – facing unplanned, and often unwelcomed, pregnancies. They seek to discourage abortion, offering women various services including counseling and free pregnancy tests. The websites of two of the centers – Full Circle Women’s Services and Life Choices Pregnancy Support Center – feature an array of misinformation about abortion, including claims that abortion causes breast cancer  and depression.

Despite widespread rejection of an abortion-breast cancer link from major medical institutions such as the American Cancer Society, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the National Cancer Institute, these CPCs imply that there is a connection, claiming on their websites that “a number of reliable studies have demonstrated connection between abortion and later development of breast cancer.”

According to the American Cancer Society, “At this time, the scientific evidence does not support the notion that abortion of any kind raises the risk of breast cancer or any other type of cancer.”

Both Full Circle Women’s Services and the Women’s Care Center are affiliated with Care Net, a national network of crisis pregnancy centers that prohibits its members from recommending, offering, or referring “single women” for contraception

Whereas proponents of comprehensive sex education encourage teaching teens how to protect themselves against unplanned pregnancy and diseases while acknowledging that condoms are not guaranteed to work 100 percent of the time, abstinence-education advocates often claim that teaching about proper condom use offers young people a “false sense of security.”

On their websites, Full Circle, Life Choices Pregnancy Resource Center, and the Women’s Care Center cite identical statistics emphasizing what they portray as the lack of effectiveness of condoms. These centers tell readers that “consistent” condom use during vaginal sex reduces the risk of “HIV by 85%”; human papillomavirus “by 50% or less”; and gonorrhea, Chlamydia, herpes, and syphilis “by about 50%.” The statistics come from various studies compiled by the Medical Institute, a nonprofit organization whose advice for preventing STDs is: “Avoid sexual activity if you are single. Be faithful to one uninfected partner for the rest of your life.”

Richard A. Crosby, a professor and chair at the Department of Health Behavior at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, told TAI that these statistics are misleading.

“These are not statistics that are widely supported by the literature,” Crosby said. “They are confounded by a lack of accounting for the correct use of condoms. Consistent use alone is not enough. … When you do not account for the correct use, you have an underestimate of the effectiveness.”

Crosby, who has received federal grants to research HIV prevention, is currently working on a “highly controlled, rigorous” study funded by the National Institutes of Health to determine the value of consistent and correct condom use in preventing three common STIs: Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis.

“All of these numbers are way low,” Crosby said, referring to the pregnancy centers’ statistics (with the exception of the rate of condom-use effectiveness at preventing HPV, which he said is supported by studies). He said the claim that condoms are 85 percent effective in reducing HIV infection is “really misleading” and not supported by many research studies that isolate for consistent and correct use.

'Innovative Approaches'

Full Circle Women’s Services – awarded $154,200 – is the anti-abortion pregnancy center that proposed trying to curb teen sex with a giant “Teen Life Maze.” The center cited the game as one of its “innovative approaches” to abstinence instruction in a grant application submitted to the Tennessee health department in May 2011. The maze is described as a “large game board of rooms designed to let teens experience the consequences – both positive and negative – of life choices. It is effective in that teens get to play along in seeing firsthand the results of good decisions and bad decisions ranging from making trips to the doctor for a lifelong STD or the satisfaction in staying on course and graduating from high school.”

In a subsequent document, the center explained that inspiration for the game comes from Georgia, where life mazes have been hosted in several schools across the state, and that Full Circle was “in the planning stages of bringing this event to Athens.”

Other innovative approaches proposed by Full Circle include hosting a game show about the risks of having sex and screening the film Look Before You Leap, described in the proposal as “an adrenaline rush of drama, action, and humor that takes relationship education to extreme heights.”

Full Circle, founded in 1998, has been offering privately financed abstinence-education services to mostly elementary and middle schools in McMinn County for a few years now. In its grant proposal, the center explained that the extra cash would be used to hire more educators. Currently, the center’s program, called On TRAC (Teaching Teens Responsibility and Consequences), relies on abstinence curriculum called “Think on Point” and “Life on Point,” created by On Point, a youth-development group in Chattanooga, Tenn

“Think on Point” is a five-day program offered once a year to sixth- through ninth-graders during physical education class. According to the program description, “[t]he curriculum includes homework assignments, in-class handouts, role-playing activities, and focused small-group discussion. … Lessons at every grade level discuss the topics of abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases, media influence, and standards and boundaries; other more specific themes include pregnancy, pornography, abuse, value and self-worth, and the essence of real love.”

“Life on Point” is designed to dig deeper into risky activities. The center also proposed bringing five-day abstinence instruction to older teens in high school life skills and health classes.

All of the abstinence-only programs funded under Tennessee’s Affordable Care Act grant had to submit short- and long-term program objectives. Full Circle Women’s long-term goals include curbing rates of teen pregnancy, school dropouts, and STDs in McMinn and Meigs counties, and also a “decrease in percentage of children being raised by single mothers below the poverty line.” Short-term goals include “increased knowledge of STDS and pregnancy risks” and “understanding the lack of effectiveness of condoms/birth control in STD protection and pregnancy.”

To make the case for giving Full Circle money to target 10- to 17-year-olds in McMinn, Meigs, and Polk counties (in southeastern part of the state), Full Circle’s grant application cited statistics showing STD rates among teens are high in the area, including “Tennessee Department of Health reports that the number of reported cases of Chlamydia in McMinn County has increased a staggering 1200% from 1994-2007."

Full Circle Women’s Services Executive Director Anne Montgomery turned down TAI’s request for an interview.

In line with the eight-point federal guidelines of abstinence education, the other two CPCs receiving Affordable Care Act funding similarly offer plans to educate teens about the repercussions of sexual activity and advocate abstinence as the only means to avoid those repercussions.

Here is part of how the Women’s Care Center promotes its abstinence program, called The Edge:

While “until marriage” may sound like practically forever, let’s get a little perspective on this. The average age of initial marriage in the United States is 26 years old. That gets even lower in more rural areas. And the payoff of sexual abstinence is that you have the rest of your married life to enjoy your sexuality without having to suffer the consequences of emotional baggage, crotch-crippling STDs, or teen pregnancy. That sounds to me like a pretty good deal.

Among the desired outcomes of Life Choices Pregnancy Resource Center’s abstinence-until-marriage program, Right Choices of West Tennessee, are “increased knowledge regarding the effects of teen sexual behavior and sexually-transmitted diseases” and “increased commitment to abstinence until marriage.”

The directors of Life Choices Pregnancy Support Center and the Women’s Care Center did not return requests for interviews.

Earlier this month, the CDC released new data showing that America’s teen birthrate is the lowest it has been since 1946. The Guttmacher Institute, a proponent of comprehensive sex education, credited that drop, in part, with improvements in contraceptive use.

But Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said high rates of STDs among teens means the abstinence-only message is still necessary.

“While teen birth rates have reached historic lows, STD rates among teens are at historic highs, so condom-centered education is certainly not sufficient to deal with even the physical consequences of sexual activity since 2 of the 4 most common STDs are easily transmissible with a condom,” Huber told TAI in an email. “Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) abstinence education makes sense from a public health perspective and also as an approach that both resonates with teens and protects them from any of the consequences of sexual activity, not the least of which is pregnancy.”

gameoflife photo