Reproductive Justice Updates

Last week, the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States (SIECUS) released their monthly policy updates for sexuality educators and advocates.

Included in the May 2010 policy updates are the results of a new study from the Guttmacher Institute showing that rates of unintended pregnancy among teen women in the US may have been previously underestimated. Previous studies have counted the unintended pregnancy rate per 1,000 women in each age group surveyed without accounting for the rates among women who identify themselves as being sexually active versus those who do not. The new study shows significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy for sexually active women than for women in general nationwide, particularly among women between the ages of 15 and 17 years old.

There’s also good news for comprehensive sexuality education advocates in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. House Education Committees in both states have just voted for legislation that would allow more comprehensive sexuality education curricula in public schools and provide guidelines for what that would look like.

If passed, both new laws require schools in each state to provide sexuality education that teaches about abstinence and contraception in ways that are medically accurate. While the Pennsylvania law leaves the specifics of curriculum development up to individual school boards, it also calls on the state department of health to create a list of guidelines that programs must follow to comply with the new legislation.

In Louisiana, sexuality education curricula must provide “information about human sexuality as a normal and healthy aspect of human development” in order to conform with this proposed legislation.

Both states have been previous recipients of Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage federal grants, but if these new laws pass, they will no longer be eligible to receive those funds. Federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs was eliminated from the 2010 federal budget by Congress and President Obama, but the funding stream was reinstated in health care reform legislation that became law this spring.

New funds available to states and community-based organizations from the President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative could help states like Pennsylvania and Louisiana implement the new laws if they pass. These programs could also provide young people nationwide with the comprehensive, medically accurate sex education they need to make healthy decisions.

You can advocate for comprehensive sexuality education in your own state by researching your state’s laws and supporting legislation similar to the Louisiana and Pennsylvania bills. Consider organizing your youth group or congregation to write letters to your governor or state legislators encouraging them to reject Title V abstinence-only grants and create policies that support comprehensive sexuality education in local school districts. For the basic information on your state’s sex education policies and funding, see the SIECUS State Profiles. For resources on how to get started as an advocate, check out the Future of Sex Education website.

World AIDS Day 2009

This year for World AIDS Day, our friends at Advocates for Youth, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and SIECUS have organized a petition campaign and blog-a-thon on the Amplify website.

From now through December 6th, you can sign the online petition asking President Obama to create an Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that provide the best and most comprehensive services and information to young people worldwide. Our country’s HIV/AIDS policy must respect the inherent worth and dignity of those who receive our support by giving them the resources they need to lead whole and healthy lives.

Sign the petition, and check out the blog-a-thon today!

There are many ways that you can commemorate World AIDS Day, including learning more about HIV/AIDS issues in your area and around the world. Unitarian Universalists across the United States and Canada are powerful advocates and educators with the UU Global AIDS Coalition. Here in Washington, D.C. there will be a march and rally tomorrow, Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 12:00pm, starting at the White House and ending at 2:00pm at the Wilson Building. RSVP and find more details on Facebook. There will also be a vigil at Dupont Circle at 5:30 pm.

Find out what’s happening in your own community for World AIDS Day here.

Thank You, Forrest Church

Written by Rev. Meg Riley

I had a different topic planned for this morning’s blog, but news of Forrest Church’s death last night—peaceful, at home, surrounded by loved ones—is right in the center of my heart and mind. As I grazed in my raspberry bush this morning, letting the bees sleep while I picked the most luscious dark berries, I felt as if I were in communion with his spirit, savoring the gifts of life as he so often instructed us all to do.

I know that others who were closer to him, more serious and systematic about reading his works, or otherwise more appropriate eulogizers than me have been writing and will continue to write tributes to him. (see or

I also know this: Forrest Church impacted me profoundly. In this way, I join hundreds of thousands of other people who read his books, heard him preach, went to events where he spoke, talked to him, enjoyed his collegiality. I’ll share just three gifts he gave me here.

  1. Forrest and All Souls Church in New York City were bold and courageous during the early days of AIDS in a way which was both steady and lighthearted. It’s hard to describe this time to folks who weren’t alive or conscious yet, but the fear focused on people with AIDS (and, by extension, gay men) was similar to that which came down against Muslims after September 11. Right wing preachers made no apologies for declaring that AIDS was God’s punishment; President Ronald Reagan literally never said the word AIDS from 1980-1988. It was a scary time. The personal witness of someone like Forrest was profound, and all too rare. His lack of fear was contagious. He woke up courage in me, sparked by his own, and led me to understand ministry as much more public than I had previously understood.
  2. Forrest taught me about the profound connection between the pastoral and the public spheres of ministry. He was deeply grounded in the personal relationships that arose from his particular congregation of people in Manhattan, and yet he was always aware that the private and the public, the personal and political, lives of people are inseparable. He had a keen eye for understanding which public issues tapped into people’s deepest places, and he mined those well for sermons, op-eds, and public witness.
  3. Forrest taught me that you’re going to make mistakes—bad mistakes—and you need to keep on going. His own foibles are as public as his triumphs, and I am sure this caused him pain and embarrassment. Yet, he did not fade quietly away, but held to his strength and dignity and ultimately lived a life that was a model of courage, kindness, compassion and integrity. In his last few years with cancer, his very body became the content and context of his theology, and many of us gained immeasurably from being in his presence.

Forrest, thank you for making your life a torch which burned brightly, to help all of us see.

Resolve to make a difference this New Year, or, "Hey, that’s my elbow!"

Many of us are excited about changes to come in the New Year, including new opportunities presented by the incoming administration and Congress.

In anticipation, the Unitarian Universalist Association is asking individual Unitarian Universalists to choose one of fourteen Legislative Objectives and pledge their support to take action on that issue.

Click here to see the list of Legislative Objectives for 2009 – 20010 and pledge your support for the upcoming year. When you do, note the photograph on the right-hand side of the page, which is captioned, “Before you get buried in new year’s activities, resolve to make a difference.” That’s my elbow sticking out as I’m slowly crushed by the weight of hundreds of balloons. (Remember when we welcomed Adam as Acting Director by filling his office with balloons?)

Please, don’t be like me: Resolve to support a Legislative Objective now.

Rev. Sinkford’s Reflections on HIV/AIDS in the Daily Voice

For years, Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the UUA, has pushed for our government to fund comprehensive sexuality education as a way of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Today, he published an editorial continuing his advocacy in the Daily Voice, a web site aiming to be the leading destination for African American news and opinion. In it, he reacts to a slew of recent developments, including the Saturday release of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, last week’s signing into law of the new President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the recent study from the Black AIDS Institute. Click here for the Daily Voice.

$48 billion for AIDS, TB, Malaria – PEPFAR Reauthorized

Let’s start with the good news. Our government has approved $48 billion over five years to combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis! The law nearly triples the funding level of its predecessor, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), originally passed in 2003. Along with the $48 billion, the legislation includes new linkages between AIDS and nutrition programs, sets a target of recruiting 140,000 new health care workers, and repeals a travel ban on HIV-positive visitors to the United States.

Additionally, the 1/3rd abstinence-until-marriage earmark has been removed! Five years of advocacy by the Unitarian Universalist Association in partnership with the Center for Health and Gender Equity, Advocates for Youth, National Council of Jewish Women, and many other organizations has finally paid off. In place of the earmark, however, is a requirement that countries must file an explanatory report with Congress if abstinence and fidelity programs fall below 50% of their prevention spending. Fortunately, this is a “soft” earmark in that it does not require that funding be used in any particular way. It is unclear how this requirement will be interpreted and how it will influence the spending decisions of partner countries and the funding decisions of the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator. But it certainly shows that Congress got the message that the abstinence-until-marriage earmark did not help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the legislation largely effect prevention programs. The law fails to mention family planning or abortion services, an omission that many advocates believe will hinder the integration of those services with HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. It only briefly mentions intravenous drug users and men who have sex with men, two high risk populations whose specific prevention needs are likely to be unfulfilled. The law also fails to eliminate the current requirement that recipients sign an “anti-prostitution pledge,” which has reportedly discouraged grantees from doing effective outreach programs for sex workers.

As the Legislative Assistant for International Issues working in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington Office for Advocacy, I have spent the last two years advocating for evidence-based, comprehensive HIV Prevention. Reflecting on the passage of this bill, I recognize that our brothers and sisters around the world who are living with HIV/AIDS need more than charitable handouts; they need firm, unshakeable commitment. The U.S. Government has taken a step toward such a commitment by authorizing nearly $48 billion to help combat HIV/AIDS. While I commend our Representatives for this substantial increase in funding, I am disappointed that their policies fail to support fully integrated, evidence-based prevention programs. This legislation fails to address the real life needs of those who are most at risk of contracting HIV, including sex workers, intravenous drug users, and men who have sex with men. Their suffering will be the measure of this policy’s failure. Again, I applaud our Government for its unprecedented financial commitment to HIV/AIDS, but the real victory will come when our HIV prevention programs carry truth to those who need it most.

The South and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

HIV/AIDS has been a problem in the United States for the past three decades. Many groups have worked tirelessly to educate the public on how to prevent transmitting HIV/AIDS and how to protect yourself from getting it in the first place. The fact that we knew so little when the epidemic first hit made it difficult for people to know how to protect themselves, but now that we are more knowledgeable and many myths have been largely dispelled it seems that we should be in a state of decline. HIV/AIDS cases should be at an all time low yet the rates have stayed largely the same since the 1990’s and have increased dramatically in the South and mainly among African Americans and women.

Let’s look at Alabama for instance, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention African Americans, who make up only 26% of Alabama’s population, accounted for 72% of new cases of HIV. And the data is similar for most of the Southern states and especially the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina). Between 2000 and 2003 the number of new AIDS cases increased 35.6% in the Deep South compared to 4% in the other Southern states and 5.2% nationally*. Not only are residents of the Deep South becoming infected with HIV at a higher rate they are also among the states with the highest death rates related to AIDS.

These rates are incredibly alarming. One explanation for why the HIV/AIDS rates has increased is due to the high levels of STI’s in the Deep South, which are the highest in the nation. STI’s have consistently been found to increase the risk of HIV transmission. That leads us to the question of why there are such high levels of STI’s. AIDS Alabama and SIECUS connect the HIV/AIDS rates to abstinence-only education which is prevalent in Alabama and across the South. Since 1998 when Alabama began receiving federal funding for abstinence-only education the STI, HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy rates have increased. Yet Alabama is still using these programs even though many studies have proven abstinence-only programs to be ineffective. Alabama, in particular is suffering from extremely poor health conditions.

The fact that the South and the African American population is greatly suffering from this disease needs to be addressed. Comprehensive Sexuality Education programs need to be instituted to educate people about STI’s, HIV/AIDS and contraceptives. People need to know how to protect themselves. They are not learning it through medically inaccurate, gender stereotyping, religion promoting, homophobic and shame based abstinence-only programs.

Call on your Representatives to GET REAL! and support the Responsible Education About Life Act. Our lives depend on it.

For additional information:

*HIV Infection and AIDS in the Deep South

AIDS Alabama

Southern AIDS Coalition

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

Faith Based Organizations Make It Happen

I’ve been organizing in the faith based community for two years and I’ve never seen anything like what happened yesterday.

At the end of last week, a core group of faith based organizations (FBO) poured some serious brainpower and hard work into drafting a religious sign-on letter to members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA). The letter calls for support of Chairman Berman’s legislation reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The Berman bill, due for markup on Wednesday, supports comprehensive prevention programs and drops the requirement that 33% of our HIV prevention funding must go to abstinence-until-marriage programs. The letter was completed and sent out to members of the religious community for their signature at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. We asked for FBOs to sign-on to the letter by close of business Monday. We had one business day to gather signatures.

In one day, 26 religious organizations came forward and put their signature on this letter!

To put this in perspective, two years ago we circulated a sign-on letter that had a very similar message and only 12 FBOs signed-on after three weeks.

I can not say exactly why we more than doubled the number of FBOs in the course of a single day, but if forced to speculate I would say two things.

First, the excellent outreach and organizing of dedicated faith groups, including our office (the UUA Washington Office), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women and the American Jewish World Service. When collaboration is truly effective, expectations can be exceeded in ways you never thought possible.

Secondly, I believe that every FBO that signed the letter grasped the significance of this moment. With PEPFAR due for reauthorization, there are millions of lives in the balance. This legislation has the potential to redirect our international HIV prevention programs from abstinence-based to evidence-based. This letter provided the religious community with an opportunity to say, “Our faiths motivate us to support the best and most flexible approaches possible to preventing new infections.”

This morning at 9 a.m. every member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs received our letter. I came into work this morning feeling proud and powerful. Each of the 26 organizations that signed the letter deserves a big pat-on-the-back. At a time when legislators are looking towards the faith-based community with many questions, 26 organizations provided them with an answer that challenges assumptions of what it means to be religious.

Rep. Lantos: Leaving Us with Hope

Shortly after arriving at work today I received an email from a colleague informing me that Congressman Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo, San Francisco), 80, passed away this morning due to complications from cancer.

Rep. Lantos was an inspiration. As a Hungarian Jew, Rep. Lantos was the only survivor of the Holocaust to serve in Congress. During his 30 years of service, he co-founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus through which he defended the rights of minorities around the world. I find it particularly moving that two years ago, at 78 years old, Rep. Lantos was arrested on the steps of the Sudanese embassy protesting the genocide in Darfur.

His belief in civil rights led him to be a strong advocate domestically for women’s right to choose and for gays and lesbians to have the right to marry. He was also widely recognized as a friend of the environment.

One of the last contributions to come out of Rep. Lantos’ office was draft legislation reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). As chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his office developed this crucial legislation, due to be marked up this Thursday.

Within the community of global HIV/AIDS advocates, researchers, and program staff, the last few weeks have seen a flurry of emails about the nuances of the bill and its political future. Within those emails, our community affectionately dubbed the legislation as the “Lantos bill.”

The “Lantos bill” honors humanity. As a parting gift to our community, and our world, this bill would position the United States to provide the most effective and inspired leadership in the history of the struggle against HIV/AIDS. In addition to allocating $50 billion over five years, it breaks down barriers to providing women and youth with comprehensive information about HIV prevention; information that could save their lives. Additionally, the “Lantos bill” dares to care about the populations most at risk of contracting HIV, such as sex workers and people struggling with drug addiction.

For me, it is a great privilege to be advocating for one of the last pieces of legislation that this man crafted. I invite you to join me in convincing this Congress that the best way to honor Rep. Lantos’ death is by passing the “Lantos bill” just as he wrote it.

Today was a sad day on Capitol Hill. Thankfully, Rep. Lantos left us a path to a better future.

Rick Warren, PEPFAR, and Me

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has scheduled a markup hearing on February 14th at 9:30 am for Chairman Lantos’ bill reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Members of the committee, who are content with the current policies – including the requirement that 1/3rd of our HIV prevention funding to be spent on abstinence-until-marriage programs – hosted a press conference yesterday on the steps of the Cannon House Office Building. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and minister of Saddleback Church in Southern California, flew into DC and spoke at the press conference.

Pastor Warren has been one of the few evangelicals to actively work to end the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. With HIV/AIDS being stigmatized for so long, Pastor Warren’s leadership on this issue has been crucial to opening up the minds and hearts of so many Americans to the suffering this pandemic causes. For three years he has held a Global Summit on AIDS at his church. In 2007 he invited six leading presidential candidates to participate, and Senator Clinton accepted.

Because HIV/AIDS and sexuality can not be separated, Sen. Clinton’s participation resulted in a lot of criticism from pro-life activists who are highly critical of her pro-choice and pro-comprehensive prevention beliefs. Pastor Warren responded by saying, “When millions are dying each year, we’re interested in lives, not labels. We want everyone to become concerned about the AIDS pandemic.”

At yesterday’s press conference, Pastor Warren praised Congress and the current administration for the last five years of unprecedented commitment to ending the spread of HIV/AIDS. He called out for an even broader commitment in the reauthorization of PEPFAR. His message was in the middle of the aisle.

His remarks were preceded and followed by Republicans on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who claimed that Chairman Lantos’ draft PEPFAR reauthorization bill had been “hijacked by the radical abortion lobby.” [listen to their remarks here]

While I was not officially invited to join the press conference, I made my way down to the Hill and sauntered up behind Representative Pitts (who originally inserted the abstinence earmark into PEPFAR), Pastor Warren and others as they shared their views on how to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS. As I stood behind those prominent speakers holding a sign that read, “Prevention based on evidence, not ideology,” I was struck by how often they accused our movement to remove the abstinence-until-marriage earmark of being fueled by our own ideology.

To back up our ideology, we have reports from the Government Accountability Office and the Institute of Medicine showing that abstinence-until-marriage programs do not change behavior and do not stop the spread of HIV.

To back up their ideology they have the truthiness that if you tell somebody not to have sex and they do not have sex they probably will not contract HIV.

Along with hundreds of committed activists, I have worked for years to remove the abstinence earmark and open the doors to prevention programs that provide women and youth with accurate information that could save their lives. I am hopeful that Congress will soon reauthorize PEPFAR and remove the earmark and I plan on standing strong (with signs in hand) until this comes to be.

Feeling compelled to find our common ground, I walked up to Pastor Warren after the press conference, still holding my sign, and thanked him for his work to end HIV/AIDS. He smiled and gave me a hug.

With Pastor Warren standing next to Rep. Pitts yesterday and Sen. Clinton two months ago, I suspect that we share one of my deepest convictions: In my journey towards justice, I am convinced that it does not matter which person of power I am standing next to, as long as I am always standing with those millions who are dying each year.