August 23, 2002

Shaming Young Mothers


Do you want to know about the sex life of Sandra, a 33-year-old brunette in Tampa?

Just read the Florida newspapers. Sandra is being forced by Florida state law to buy advertisements that give her full name (which I'm not repeating) and physical description: 5 feet 2 inches, 142 pounds, brown eyes. Then, as the law requires, she has to list and describe the five men she had sex with late last summer: Bill, Tommy, Allen, Eric and Joshua.

This new state law requires women - even 14- and 15-year-old girls, even rape victims - to disclose the name and address of the father of a baby offered for adoption, or else to publish these ads for four weeks. Perhaps not since a tribal council in Pakistan ordered a woman to be gang-raped in June has a government treated women with such contempt.

The new Florida law was meant to reduce the risk of a father's emerging years after an adoption and seeking custody. So the law stipulates that the mother must publish her name and description, along with the names and descriptions of men whom she cannot locate but with whom she had sex around the time of conception.

"It's extremely humiliating," said Melissa Colleran, a pregnant 18-year-old New Yorker now living in Florida and planning to give her baby up for adoption. Ms. Colleran doesn't know where the father is but is pretty sure he won't be happy at seeing his name in the newspaper.

"He won't like it at all," she said, "and it's going to fall back on me."

Jeanne Tate, an adoption lawyer in Tampa, represents a woman who has a 12-year-old son and is married to a man who is not the biological father. The mother wants her husband to adopt his stepson.

"To do that," Ms. Tate said, "she has to publish her sexual history from 12 years ago, where neighbors, friends, other school parents can all read about it."

The Florida law is appalling on its own. But it is also part of a dismaying pattern: Neo-puritans are threatening abortion rights, replacing teaching about contraception with preaching about abstinence, and destroying programs that save women's lives in developing countries. Just last month the Bush administration launched a commission to re-examine Title IX, which requires schools to give girls and boys equal opportunities in athletic programs.

President Bush is seeking $135 million for "abstinence only" sex education, which in practice often replaces teaching about contraception. A study reported in Family Planning Perspectives suggests that 23 percent of high school sex-ed programs now teach abstinence as the only way of avoiding pregnancy and venereal disease, up from 2 percent in 1988. The result will be unnecessary pregnancies and abortions.

These should not be partisan issues. Right-wing Republicans (notably evangelicals) almost certainly contribute far more money to help third-world women than do left-wing Democrats, and in retrospect conservatives basically got it right on the benefits of welfare reform for poor women. And neither the pro-choice nor pro-life camp wants more abortions - which adoption agencies in Florida say are already taking place, as scared teenage girls try to avoid publishing their sexual histories in the newspapers.

Charlotte Danciu, an adoption attorney in Boca Raton, represents a girl who at the age of 12 was raped by a 27-year-old man who disappeared. To give up her baby for adoption, the girl would have been obliged to publish ads with her name and a reference to the rape.

She filed suit, and a judge halted the publication requirement for rape victims in Palm Beach County, although it still applies to rape victims elsewhere in Florida. Everywhere the law applies to minors; teenage girls must publish the names of teenage boys they slept with.

How could a state enact a law that so mercilessly treats mothers as chattel?

Gov. Jeb Bush, who allowed the bill to become law without his signature, didn't return my call. Evelyn Lynn, a 72-year-old Republican who sponsored the bill, said she would accept an amendment next year to end the publishing requirement but is unapologetic. "I don't see it as punishing anyone," she said. "I see it as protecting children."

"When you do a major piece of legislation," she added, "you can't please everyone."


-----New York TImes -- Letter to the Editor

August 30, 2002
Risky Sex Education

To the Editor:

Nicholas D. Kristof ("Shaming Young Mothers," column, Aug. 23) discusses the trend toward restrictive abstinence-only sexuality education policies in American high schools. These policies are even more dangerous than indicated.

In accepting federal financing to promote abstinence, a program and its teachers must either prohibit the discussion of contraceptives altogether or limit discussion to their ineffectiveness. Such programs place sexually
active teenagers at increased risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Moreover, there is no evidence that abstinence-only education delays teenage sexual activity.

The neo-puritans Mr. Kristof refers to are denying young women the information they need to prevent pregnancies, and with punitive adoption laws like those in Florida, punishing them when they do become pregnant.

President, Alan Guttmacher Institute
New York, Aug. 23, 2002