Democratic candidates for president try to appeal to an ideological audience that pays attention to early campaigns, but will that hurt the candidates in the longer term?
in Ducanville, Texas - Students' hip-hugging, bell-flared jeans and baggy, multi-pocketed pants seem strangely incongruous with the Duncanville, Texas, Ninth Grade School library's bright, sky-blue walls and shiny laminated construction-paper posters. As a group of boys with backpacks slung sloppily over their shoulder quibble over back-row library seating, a teacher comments quietly, "This is going to be a rough one, but she'll handle it." "She" is 41-year-old June Evans, a 5'3" African-American woman with a pixie-like grin and deep, boisterous voice. A full-time lecturer for Aim for Success, one of the nation's largest abstinence programs, Mrs. Evans will speak more than 20 times this week in four different schools, encouraging teenagers to remain abstinent until marriage. Today's audience is typical-an ethnic mix from a lower middle-class neighborhood 15 miles southwest of Dallas. "All I'm out here to do today is to give you the truth," begins Mrs. Evans. "Is everyone comfortable with that? I am because I talk about sex all day every day." The room is suddenly silent as 50 students, ages 14 to 16, perch on the edges of their seats. Voice rising like a Pentecostal preacher, Mrs. Evans launches into her presentation: "I know you guys hear 'say no, say no, say no,' and you think you're giving up something. But let me tell you what you're getting," she says, flashing a neon-yellow projection of the word freedom on the wall. "You're getting freedom from fear. Fear of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), fear of unwanted pregnancies, and fear of emotional pain." It's a different message from the "freedom of choice" mantra preached for the last 25 years by safe-sex proponents and, with the help of federal funding under 1996 welfare-reform laws, it's now heard by at least 3 million students annually. And that's a conservative estimate, according to Focus on the Family's Peter Brandt, who says the figure leaves out thousands of students reached through grassroots programs like True Love Waits, which has succeeded in obtaining virginity pledges from 15 percent of the nation's teenage girls. "Abstinence has exploded over the last 10 years," says Mr. Brandt, who serves as acting director of the National Coalition for Abstinence Education. The new emphasis comes alongside a drop in teen pregnancy and sexual activity rates, which have fallen for the first time in two decades. The Centers for Disease Control report a 9 percent decrease in teen pregnancy and 28 percent decrease in teen abortions during the 1990s. According to the CDC, the percentage of teens abstaining from sex rose from 46 to 52 percent from 1995 to 1997. While acknowledging that it's too early to prove how much of the declines can be attributed to abstinence teaching, Focus on the Family's Brandt asserts that "we are winning in the public opinion arena." But not everybody is celebrating. ABC News this December accused schools of "shortchanging students" with abstinence-only programs. "Our children are being denied life-saving information that their parents want for them," Sexuality Information and Education Council (SIECUS) president Debra Haffner told ABC. Time magazine went further, citing "public health experts'" concerns that abstinence education could "undo a decade of progress in education about safe sex." That depends on the definition of progress. After more than two decades of safe-sex education, STDs have reached epidemic proportions. Thirty years ago doctors recognized only two STDs-syphilis and gonorrhea. Both are curable. Today there are over 25 STDS, generating more than 12 million new cases annually. Half are incurable. Also hidden from the public limelight is the fact that condoms do not protect against one of the most common and incurable STDs-Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). This February, the National Cancer Institute quietly told U.S. House members that "condoms are ineffective against HPV." The Institute also reported that HPV affects 24 million people annually and causes over 99 percent of cervical cancer cases, killing more than 5,000 women every year. Even so, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that less than 1 percent of teenagers and adults know HPV is sexually transmitted. Why the lack of HPV public-awareness campaigns? "Nobody's addressing it because ultimately for groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Planned Parenthood to come out and say that condoms do not prevent the spread of HPV would really be an admission that they have been operating for years under failed public-health policy," says Mr. Brandt. But there is light gleaming in the dark tunnel of political correctness, and it's coming from those in the trenches-the doctors and nurses treating HPV victims. Dr. Crawford Allison, a family practitioner in McLennan County, 100 miles south of Dallas, still remembers the day he told a 19-year-old mother she could never have another child. During the woman's first pregnancy, Dr. Allison discovered she had cervical cancer caused by an HPV virus contracted at age 14. A hysterectomy followed, eliminating any hope of future pregnancies for the young woman and her husband. Similar cases served as "a wakeup call for me," says Dr. Allison, admitting that he accepted "safe-sex" theories at the start of his 20-year career. "At the time we didn't have the information we have today about STDs. It was unknown then," he says. "Before I would see an abnormal Pap smear maybe once a month. Now it's once, twice, three times a week-mostly from HPV." With two college campuses and surrounding rural communities, McLennan County has the state's second highest sexual activity rate for ages 13 to 17, according to a 1997 Texas health department report. So Dr. Allison has helped launch a new crusade: the McLennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project (MCCAP). Collaborative is the key word. Founded two years ago by Dr. Allison, community nurses, and parents, MCCAP relies on a medley of organizations-including Aim for Success, local crisis pregnancy centers, area hospitals, and television and radio stations-to reach 21,000 students in 31 school districts. "We are immunizing at least a segment of children against STDs by educating them," says Dr. Allison. Last year, the number of students choosing to remain abstinent in one McLennan County high school using MCCAP resources increased by 15 percent. Despite local success, groups like MCCAP face stiff competition nationally. "There is at least $500 million going to fund contraceptive-based education through hundreds of different government and agency programs," says Mr. Brandt. In response, Oklahoma obstetrician-gynecologist Tom Coburn has taken his battle to the White House. Doubling as Congressman, Dr. Coburn proposed legislation requiring HPV-warning labels on condom packages as well as a registry for physicians to report new HPV cases. Predictably, the safe-sex lobby is vehemently opposed. "This effort is solely designed to advance an abstinence-only approach to sex," said Planned Parenthood's Gloria Felt. "This is part of the whole 'shaming of America' campaign promoted by people who want to impose their own personal religious and moral agenda on all people." More tragic is the opposition of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which stated that it was "alarmed" by Dr. Coburn's public stance in favor of abstinence outside of marriage as the only fool-proof way to avoid HPV. Despite colleagues' attacks, Dr. Coburn refuses to water down his message. "What we are fighting in liberal America today is people who want to say there are no consequences for behavior that's immoral," he told WORLD. Back at Duncanville Ninth Grade School, Mrs. Evans unabashedly teaches consequences. "Yes, we tell kids the fear side of it. But the fear side is true," she says. Wearing a wrinkled denim blouse over a gray T-shirt, Mrs. Evans yells, "Come on now!" as students race to pass a honk toy around the room. If caught with the toy at certain timed intervals, students must honk it and remain standing. At the end of the game, five students are left standing and Mrs. Evans tells them they represent the number of adolescents contracting a sexually transmitted disease every 11 seconds in the United States. "If you notice warts or blisters, just hang with them. Become real good friends, because they could be with you the rest of your life," she says bluntly. "Any questions?" asks Mrs. Evans at the end of the session. There is only one, from a 16-year-old named "D.D." with two huge bubblegum ponytail holders protruding from the top of her head: "Will you come back next year?"