Teaching Fear

C. The AIDS Epidemic and a Change in Tactics

In the mid-1980s, a new factor -- the AIDS epidemic -- irrevocably changed sexuality education and forced the Right once again to rethink its opposition strategies. The seriousness and potential magnitude of HIV/AIDS came to widespread public attention in October 1986 via a report by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, titled the Surgeon General's Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Among Religious Right political leaders, Koop had been a popular appointment to the post of Surgeon General primarily because of his strong anti-choice position. His opinions on sexuality education were not as popular among that constituency. His AIDS report, however, resulted in a broad political consensus that sexuality education has a place in the public schools, though disagreement persists on exactly what type of sexuality education is appropriate.

Koop's report radically shifted the terms of the sexuality education debate by advocating AIDS education beginning as early as the third grade. In the report, Koop became the first federal health official to advocate comprehensive AIDS and sexuality education in public schools. Said Koop, "There is now no doubt that we need sex education in schools and that it [should] include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships. The need is critical and the price of neglect is high. The lives of our young people depend on our fulfilling our responsibility." Koop further states that, "The best protection against infection right now - barring abstinence - is use of a condom."

The release of Koop's report provided a significant boost for sexuality education. In November 1986, a Time magazine poll showed 86 percent of respondents agreeing that sexuality education should be taught in school. Time reported that this was "perhaps the highest number ever." The poll also showed that 89 percent of respondents approved of sexuality education courses that include birth control information for 12-year-old children. Also in November of 1986, the federal Centers for Disease Control sponsored a program to award $10 million in that fiscal year to state education agencies to help them develop and introduce comprehensive HIV/AIDS, sex, and drug education courses -- the first government financing for HIV/AIDS education in public schools.

But the political consensus around HIV/AIDS education proved fragile. At the time of the report's release, Koop had forecast that "the appearance of AIDS could bring together diverse groups of parents and educators with opposing views on inclusion of sex education in the curricula." The Washington Post also editorialized, "It isn't often that Planned Parenthood and the Reagan administration see eye to eye, but a national crisis has brought them together on at least one subject: AIDS." Such optimism proved overblown, however, since there still was no true "common ground" on the issue of the content to be taught. In fact, two diametrically opposing "camps" emerged: those in favor of comprehensive sexuality education, and those favoring abstinence-only programs. One journalist wrote in 1986 after reading Koop's report, "The next controversies will break out between those who want to deliver a moralistic message and those who want a medical message - between no sex and `safe' sex."

As a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and, to a lesser extent, increasing rates of teen pregnancy, opponents could no longer ignore the need for sexuality education and continue to oppose it outright. Yet the Right's only response was to increase its efforts to substitute abstinence-only curricula for comprehensive sexuality education.

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