Comprehensive programs on sex education have an 80 percent approval rating in conservative and liberal states, according to Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer, a program at Rutgers University that provides teacher training and peer counseling on sex education.
She highlighted the consensus in the United States, followed by her fear that sex education “may be imperiled in the next four years.”
Concerned not only with the threat of curtailed abortion rights, but a lack of education to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases, the National Council of Jewish Women, Essex County Section (NCJW) looked at the issues through multiple lenses at a lunch and learn forum on Jan. 26.
They called their meeting “The Information Void: A Discussion of Reproductive Health Education.”
The meeting was planned to commemorate the 44th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision of Jan. 22, 1973. The subject continues to be timely as the Trump administration prepared to announce the president’s choice to fill a United States Supreme Court vacancy with a candidate seen likely to be a strong opponent of abortion rights.
Cushman led off the discussion which was held at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. She decried a “patchwork system” of laws governing sex education in public elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, with 24 states plus Washington, D.C. that mandate that the subject be taught, and only 13 states — including New Jersey — requiring the lessons to be medically accurate.
She lamented a $385,000 five- year grant for “exemplary sexual health education,” that New Jersey halted after three years, but still kept one part of it going. So the state turned away $320,000 per year for the final two years of the grant. She also noted that state-funded school programs in abstinence-only education are “very much alive and well,” with New Jersey receiving $1.3 million in federal money and matching it with another $1 million to promote abstinence education.
Although abstinence is the only foolproof way to prevent pregnancy, she said, educators need to talk about a whole range of other topics including peer pressure, gender roles, HIV/AIDS, parenting, and the reproductive system, noting that many instructors are ill-equipped to discuss sexual matters. Teenagers “can tell that their teachers are horribly uncomfortable with this topic,” she said.
Cynthia Daniels, a professor of political science at Rutgers, described misinformation spread by so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” set up by opponents of reproductive rights to mislead women who are seeking abortions.
Quite often such centers are opened adjacent to abortion providers to confuse prospective patients and, according to Daniels, misinform them about the development of their fetuses to shame them into believing they are “baby killers.”
A survey she conducted found that one-third of the information provided in state-sponsored information packets on pregnancy and abortion is medically inaccurate. Fetal development is accelerated so that systems giving the fetus “baby-like” characteristics such as seeing, crying, or feeling pain occur earlier than is developmentally correct, according to findings from Daniels’s study.
For her, politics meddling with the doctor-patient relationship is “most troubling.”
Jen Boulanger, director of communications at Women’s Centers located in New Jersey and three other states, charged that crisis center employees deliberately misinform women about the medical risks of abortions and give incorrect information that a fetus could feel pain in the early weeks of development.
A patient at one center said her counselor lied by telling her she was early in her pregnancy and “had plenty of time” to decide whether to have an abortion, although that was not the case; the longer she waited the less opportunity she would have to terminate the pregnancy.
A woman at another crisis center was urged not to have an abortion and was not offered medical treatment when she started to have a miscarriage. “It was scary,” said Boulanger.
Following the meeting, Phoebe Pollinger, a member of the NCJW board’s advocacy committee and a Montclair resident, contemplated the discussion in the context of Jewish values.
“We are for justice for everyone,” she said. “We are for truth. This is such a cornerstone of who we are as a people. We need to have truth. We need to have justice. It is such a big part of our faith.”