Let’s Talk About Sex

Foundation Launches Educational Initiative

By Beth Schwartzapfel

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
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Because she’s 17, Laura Alonge hears a lot of sex jokes. She and her friends have all seen “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” and the million other horny-stoner-kids films that have recently captured the hearts and minds of high schoolers across the country. It drives her crazy, though, that her peers don’t know truth from fiction. “They hear in a Seth Rogan movie, ‘the law of gravity, what goes up must come down,’ and they think you can’t get pregnant if you’re on top,” she said. Even at her public high school, in what she describes as her “very liberal, not very religious” town of Lynbrook, N.Y., on Long Island, “sex ed was too short and too late. The kids weren’t really walking away with what they needed.” So Alonge, in her quest to make sure she and her peers received scientifically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education in their schools, teamed up with an unlikely partner: a faith-based organization.

The National Council of Jewish Women launched in September a campaign called “Sex Ed Works!” as part of its Plan A initiative for contraceptive access. The initiative provides resources, support, information and advocacy to local chapters that are tackling issues on access to contraception and sexuality education. “Everything supports [comprehensive sex education],” NCJW President Nancy Ratzan said. “The polling supports it, scientific data supports it and common sense supports it. The only real pushback against it is an extreme religious view about sex, and marriage, and procreation.”

Last year, on the 42nd anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut (the landmark 1965 Supreme Court decision that overturned a state ban on birth control and guaranteed a Constitutional “right to marital privacy”), NCJW launched Plan A. Funded by the Ford Foundation, Plan A has as its cornerstone an 80-page “toolkit” that helps members of NCJW’S local chapters take action in five areas: pharmacist refusal, comprehensive sex education, emergency contraception (also known as “the morning after pill” and marketed in the United States as Plan B), affordable contraception and access to contraception for young women. “Sex Ed Works!” a poster and fact sheet, is meant to supplement the toolkit for members focusing on the education component of the program.

A 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that more than 90% of American parents thought that sex education, which included information about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and about birth control, was appropriate for middle or high schoolers. Despite this, the federal government has spent $1.5 billion in funding for “abstinence-only” education programs, even in the face of federally funded research demonstrating that these programs do not reduce the number of teen pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections.

The idea for Plan A took shape in 2006, when “we were hearing about grown women who took prescriptions for birth control into pharmacies and the pharmacists refused to fill them,” said NCJW’s director of Washington operations, Sammie Moshenberg, who helped develop the program. “A lot of times, the obstacles [to contraception] were couched in a religious context. For us, that’s not only a restriction on our reproductive health, but frankly, it’s a restriction on religious liberty, as well.”

Nationwide, four states — Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota — have passed laws allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill contraception prescriptions on moral or religious grounds, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive health research and policy organization. An additional five states have refusal laws that are worded broadly enough to apply to pharmacists.

As part of Plan A, Connecticut’s five NCJW chapters used the toolkit to help pass the Healthy Teens Act, which would have provided funding to local school districts for comprehensive sex education (the bill passed the state House and Senate last year, but was not funded by the governor). A chapter in California worked with a shelter for at-risk youth to distribute condoms and information. And the Peninsula chapter, on Long Island, launched a program to train teenagers as peer educators on issues of sexuality and contraception — which is how Alonge got involved. She was “born and raised in an Italian, Roman Catholic family,” and Alonge is the first to admit that it was an unlikely match. “You kind of associate Judaism with religious tradition. Stereotypically, you think the older generation are a little more conservative with their views.” And the women she’s worked with? “They’re totally not like that! They understand that to keep our young kids healthy, they need to give them knowledge to make proper decisions for themselves.”

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