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CNN Crossfire

How Far Should Sex Education Go?

Aired July 02, 2001 - 19:30   ET



BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: ... over tobacco, Jocelyn Elders over masturbation. And now it's David Satcher's turn over sex education. In a report titled "Call to Action to Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior," Satcher advocates inclusive sexual education in schools, stressing but not limited to abstinence. He says distribution of condoms should be permitted. And he disagrees with those who say homosexuality is something that can be reversed.

No surprise, Satcher's report stirred up a hornet's nest of criticism. Some conservatives demand he be fired. And President Bush was quick to say he disagreed with Satcher. But what about the facts? Is Satcher right that teaching abstinence alone is not enough? Or by teaching more than abstinence, is he just encouraging kids to become sexually active? That's tonight's debate. Bob and Tucker are both out of town. So look who's here.

He's been a guest many times. Tonight he sits in as guest host on the right, Florida Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. Joe, welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

REP. JOE SCARBOROUGH (R-FL), GUEST HOST: Great to be back here again.

PRESS: New role?

SCARBOROUGH: That's right. That's right. Dr. Elders, thanks for coming on CROSSFIRE with us. Let me ask you this, this report downplays abstinence. And a lot of conservatives are asking, "What is it about Liberals that make them believe that teaching kids to just say 'no' to sex isn't enough?"

DR. JOCELYN ELDERS, FORMER U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: I think that we, you know, we tried just saying no. I think children need information and our government should not withhold information from parents and their children.

PRESS: That's the point. I think Janet gets right to the heart of this. Dr. Satcher says "you tell teenagers the facts about sex, they'll make the right decision." You want to keep them in the dark. Why?

JANET PARSHALL, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: Not in the dark at all. I want to shine the light on the truth here. I want to tell the kids the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I don't want to advance the political agenda. This isn't a call to action, it's a call to confusion.

SCARBOROUGH: But you know, Dr. Elders, the thing is the federal government actually has been teaching abstinence primarily over the past few years. And if you look at the facts, bottom line is, teenage pregnancy rates continue to go down with that abstinence teaching. Why do liberals want to rock the boat? Why do we want to talk about condoms and homosexuality and all of these other highly charged issues that do not bring down teenage sex rates or pregnancy?

ELDERS: Well, you know, we know that AIDS, things like AIDS is increasing. Sexual abuse is increased. And I don't think we've been teaching our children a comprehensive health education program. We have talked about abstinence, but I'm not sure you can name me one school that has really provided a comprehensive health education program for all the children, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

SCARBOROUGH: But you know in America today though, all children are hearing about whether it's in pop culture or whether it's in their school, not necessarily from teachers, is they're hearing about sex, sex, sex. Why is it, again, that the facts bear out that teaching abstinence does reduce teenage pregnancy and liberals just don't want to talk about it?

ELDERS: Well, you know, there is no data that said teaching about abstinence reduces, you know, it may do that, but there is no scientific data that has been presented to prove that. And I think that we have not provided our children with the kind of education which they need in this era and in this culture of 15 million STDs, in this culture of increasing numbers of HIV and AIDS. I think that we have got to respond. We've allowed the TV to teach our children, the streets to teach our children, the girlie magazines to teach our children. Why not use the most important institution we've got, our schools, to provide sexuality education for all children?

PRESS: Janet, when Dr. Elders just mentioned some of these figures, I mean, it's not just the thrill of sex teenagers have to know. There are consequences. 12 or 15 million cases of STDs every year, a million cases of genital herpes alone, teenage pregnancies, HIV. I mean, you hear those numbers and you know, everybody wants to stop having sex. President Bush today said that's not the right answer. Here's what -- through his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, the president spoke out on sex education. Here's what he said is the answer."


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They need to understand the consequences of the choices they make. The president believes and the report does have some indication that the best way to prevent pregnancy, only surefire way, is through abstinence. And that's the best way to avert disease as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PRESS: Now I would agree it's the only sure fire way, but human beings being human beings, not everybody is going to abstain. So isn't the best policy abstinence plus?

PARSHALL: No, it's not and I'll tell you why. We practice a kind of inconsistency on public policy here in Washington. I never once heard Bill Clinton say, "We're going to make sure those Joe Camel posters are not up at the school. And kids are going to smoke anyway. So I tell you what, we'll have a distribution site for filtered cigarettes because hey, they're kids. They're going to do it anyway."

We don't sell them short when it comes to saying 'no' to alcohol, drugs and tobacco, but boy, somehow when it comes to the sex area, we think that they're animals. Having sex is not rocket science. My dog can have sex. We don't need anymore education on sex. What we need is context, morality. And Rutgers University did a study of kids who became sexually active. And you know what they said we want to know? We want to know how to say 'no' to our partner without hurting their feelings. That's the education they're crying for.

PRESS: But you know, the problem with your dog is you can't teach it how to use a condom. You can teach your teenager how to use a condom. And look, the fact is this seems to me, people like you, it's grown-ups who have had sex telling teenagers not to. It's not going to work. Why shouldn't I tell them what the facts are?

PARSHALL: You know what? I think we should. Oh, yes.

PRESS: And how to practice safe sex if they decide to go that way.

PARSHALL: Let's teach them about condoms and let's teach them that particularly in the teenage community, the failure rate for teens is between 16 and 18 percent. You know, the irony is when you tell kids that, they'll look at you and they'll say, well then I'm not going to use a condom. That's like playing Russian roulette and my health is too valuable for that.

PRESS: Probably because they were not told how to use it properly.

PARSHALL: Did every grown-up use it properly?

ELDERS: Teenagers tend to use condoms much more effectively even than grown-ups. We grown-ups were never taught how to use condoms properly. And I can assure you we know that latex condoms protect far more than just saying no. We've got to give our children more than that.

PARSHALL: Dr. Elders...

ELDERS: We have lied to them for years, not provided them with the kind of education they need to survive.


ELDERS: And then -- no, I know. You see, I don't...

PARSHALL: Well, Dr. Elders, your whole philosophy, when you were surgeon general...


PARSHALL: ... your whole philosophy when you were surgeon general was take to condoms and call me in the morning. We were teaching GIs back in World War II...

ELDERS: You are a liar. That is not what I taught.

PARSHALL: ... how to use a condom.

ELDERS: I taught...

SCARBOROUGH: Dr. Elders, let's get this back on course. And let me ask you a question the conservatives also want to know the answer to. Why is it that Washington, D.C. is always turned to when we have some of these social problems, which conservatives will tell you really started to arise after the liberalism of the 1960s and after all cures for social ills seemed to move to the Department of HHS or to Washington, D.C. Why can't parents teach children about sex? And here's what George Bush had to say about it.

PRESIDENT BUSH: So the best sex education takes place at home. I think schools ought to be focused on reading and writing and subtracting.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, don't you agree with that?

ELDERS: I certainly agree that parents should educate their children, but we've got to educate our parents. And schools have a greater responsibility than reading, writing and arithmetic.

SCARBOROUGH: Dr. Elders, when you say we have to...

ELDERS: We all have got to take responsibility.

SCARBOROUGH: When you say that we have to teach our parents, isn't that the arrogance of liberalism that says a parent in Topeka or a parent in Peoria is just too stupid or too prejudiced...


SCARBOROUGH: To teach their children about human sexuality.

ELDERS: That is not at all what I'm saying. I'm saying that a survey of parents done by the Kaiser Foundation said that 97 percent of parents wanted their children to have comprehensive health education in their schools.

SCARBOROUGH: Health education or sex education?

ELDERS: Well, you know what? There is...

SCARBOROUGH: It's says health education.

ELDERS: Wait a minute. There is no such thing as sex education. There is health education. And a part of that, you're teaching children about drugs. You're teaching them about not smoking, not drinking, to respect themselves, taking care of themselves, all of that is a part of...

SCARBOROUGH: Well, I guarantee you 97 percent...

ELDERS: ... what I call sexuality education.

SCARBOROUGH: When 97 percent of parents don't want that, I'll guarantee you...

PRESS: We'll see that in just a second, but Janet, here's the problem I think. I certainly agree parents ought to do this. I think everybody agrees with that, but everybody's got to recognize that not all parents do. So you've got a lot of kids who are left out in the cold is what Dr. Satcher calls "a conspiracy of silence about sex and it's time we ended it in this country." In fact, here's what he suggests. I think even you are going to agree with this. Listen to Dr. Satcher.

Dr. SATCHER: We can trust our young people with information about sexuality and about for people who are sexually active, what it takes to optimally protect yourself and others against sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy. So that's the message here that we need a balanced program and we believe that young people can handle that program.

PRESS: Ultimately, reasonable. What's the matter? Are you afraid of balance?

PARSHALL: It's doublespeak because he said, "Give them the best information to ultimately protect themselves." A condom doesn't stop the transmission of HPD virus. The information that will absolutely protect them is abstinence.

PRESS: But there's not just condoms. You keep on dumping on condoms. I'm sorry, they're a lot more effective than you think. It's also talking about contraception. It's talking about abstinence. It's talking about a whole range of things that end up talking about trusting your partner, knowing your partner, making the right decisions. It's probably the first grown-up decision they'll make in their life. Don't you think we ought to help them to make the right decision?

PARSHALL: Absolutely, absolutely, they should make that right decision within the confines of marriage. And the way they'll arrive there healthy, safe and whole is by saving sex for marriage.

PRESS: Now just quickly, I'm going to just bust this bubble about what parents want and don't want. This is the Kaiser Family Foundation Report, the September 2000, a year ago, "Parental Preferences for Sex Education." Do you want the schools to be teaching about HIV and AIDS? 98 percent of parents say 'yes.' Abstinence? 97. Reproduction and birth control? 90. Condom use? 85. Abortion? 79. Sexual education and homosexuality? 76. Man, you're just way out there in left field. You don't speak for the parents of America.

PARSHALL: Well, I speak as a parent of four and I speak as a former public school teacher. And if you were say to mom and dad, do you want to know what Planned Parenthood defines as comprehensive sex education? Well, mama, daddy, here it is. They want to teach kindergartners about sexual fantasy. Now you think that's appropriate and is it comprehensive?

PRESS: I don't think that's what Planned Parenthood...

PARSHALL: I went to one of their conventions when they said that to the attendees.

PRESS: All right, when we come back. Dr. Elders, we hear you there. We're going to take a break here just a second. And let her know that you've been kind enough to stick around after the show. So anybody who wants to throw a question with Dr. Elders can do so by joining her in our chatroom at

When we come back, we'll pick up another controversial feature of the Satcher Report, is homosexuality something you can just turn on and turn off? When we come back.


SCARBOROUGH: Welcome back to "Crossfire." I'm Congressman Joe Scarborough, sitting in on the right. After months of delay, the Satcher Report on sex education has finally hit the streets. And some conservatives are up in arms. While there's missing abstinence education alone is ineffective, the report focuses on such hot button issues as homosexuality, contraception and AIDS. Is this really what we want our children learning in school? Join us in Little Rock, Arkansas, former Clinton administration surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, who supports the Satcher Report.

And here in Washington, conservative radio talk show host Janet Parshall, who is outraged at the Satcher action plan. Bill?

PRESS: John, I tell you what has me outraged is this -- the constant theme we hear from people like you is that homosexuality is like a light switch. You can turn it on and turn it off. Either you can be gay on weekends and straight during the week, if you want to. I mean, it's that easy. In his report, Dr. Satcher says there is no valid scientific evidence to support this reversibility of homosexuality. Are you finally ready to admit that it's a way some people are born and some people are not?

PARSHALL: Absolutely no evidence whatsoever that someone is born that way. And you need to talk to Dr. Robert Spitzer and get his opinion on this and why in fact, he now says that people can indeed change people, engage in sexual behavior. That could be defined as heterosexual or homosexual. They're not born homosexual. And by the way, one of the key advisers on this report is a fellow by the name of Eli Coleman, who's the outgoing president of the World Association of Sexology, who has written prolifically on the subject of transgenderism, bisexualism, and homosexuality. That's like asking the fox to guard the chicken house. It's a flawed report.

PRESS: It's one guy who may have been there. The fact is, you cited one doctor. Dr. Satcher reviewed all the scientific studies, hundreds and hundreds of them, certainly more weighty scientific evidence than you brought up. But the point he makes is that the attitude that you espouse leads directly to the fact that people feels it's OK to tease gays.


PRESS: To taunt gays, to discriminate against gays and even to be violent against gays. Don't you see that your partly responsible for this?

PARSHALL: Absolutely not. I reject that 100 percent. If you want to teach people to respect other people, you just respect them for who they are. You don't create a specific class of protection and say, because of their sexual choices, they deserve protection under the law or special treatment.

PRESS: Well, why don't you respect for who they are?

PARSHALL: I respect them gays.

PRESS: They can be changed.

PARSHALL: Because the most disrespectful thing I could do is tell them that they can't change. That's a lie and thousands and thousands of people have done it.

SCARBOROUGH: Dr. Elders, this report was originally due out this past fall. And it was deep-sixed by the Clinton administration. Now a lot of people are speculating in the press that this occurred because of embarrassment over Monica Lewinsky. "The Washington Post," for instance, wrote that. Others are saying that the Clinton administration wanted this to sort of blow up in President George Bush's face.

Let me ask you this question: If this report is so great as you say it is, why was the Clinton administration embarrassed to release it this past fall?

ELDERS: I doubt -- you know, I can't say and I don't know that the Clinton administration was embarrassed to release this report. I think this is a report that has been put together by the real experts in this country. And anytime in this country we start talking about sex, we start talking about slavery. We start talking about racism. Everybody goes crazy. It's time that we admit to some of the problems that we've got in this country, talk about them, so we can begin to address the issues.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, that's great, Dr. Elders, but talking about this report specifically, Ceci Connolly with "The Washington Post" wrote an article saying, "This report was killed during the Monica Lewinsky scandal because the surgeon general didn't want to embarrass Bill Clinton." Doesn't that prove in itself that he is a political figure and really discredits the credibility of this report?

ELDERS: Listen, surgeon general's reports are something that the surgeon general sat in his office and wrote. It is -- you have the experts in the field from across different sections, educators, ministers, outside admissions, all across different ideas. And they put together a report that is opposed to express the central current feeling of the people in America. And that's what this is about. And it's the surgeon general's responsibility to put it out, rather than making it a political football. And I think...

SCARBOROUGH: But they made it a political football by clearing Bill Clinton...

ELDERS: No, we're making it a political football.

SCARBOROUGH: Was done six months ago and they sat on the report because it would have embarrassed the Clinton administration.

ELDERS: I don't feel that this report would have embarrassed the Clinton administration.


ELDERS: I think this Clinton administration would have been very pleased with this report.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, I don't know, they should've released it then.

PRESS: They should have been pleased because it's right. But I don't know whether they held it up or not. All I know is that the Bush administration released it. Janet Parshall, Tommy Thompson, HHS Secretary, was shown the report by Dr. Satcher and Secretary Thompson said, "Go ahead. Put it out there." Now they could've killed this report.

PARSHALL: And I'm proud of him for that.

PRESS: Sure. Why didn't they? Don't you think maybe because they see the writing on the wall? They see that the American public wants inclusive sex education?

PARSHALL: I think they do see the writing on the wall. Dr. Satcher's term ends February 2002. I think that's what the writing says. So they let it go out. They let him release it. They let him finish his tenure. And the bottomline is he won't be reappointed by the president. The president on the campaign trail said it in Philadelphia, has been saying it while he's in the office, abstinence, abstinence, abstinence. And he's putting his money where his mouth is.

PRESS: Now let me ask you just one final thing. There's this group in -- I never heard of before in Austin, Texas called the Medical Institute. They came out with a study last week, reported in "The Washington Times," that said for teenagers sex is more dangerous than smoking cigarettes. I think this report was probably paid for by the tobacco industry. But nonetheless, do you agree with such a crazy statement as that?

PARSHALL: I have to tell you I think what the Medical Institute was saying was, "Look, you get a sexually transmitted disease, it not only can render you infertile as a woman, give you cervical cancer, but give you HIV." And HIV is a disease that takes no prisoners. We need to be deadly serious about this. And the one we give them sure- fire protection is we say "don't" for tobacco, "don't" for drugs, and by the way, "don't" for sex.

PRESS: So lung cancer is better than genital warts?

PARSHALL: No, I didn't say that. I didn't say that. The bottomline is I'm not interested in playing Russian roulette straight across the board for my kids. If we're going to say as villagers no to drugs, no to alcohol, than as villagers, if it takes a village, we better say no to sex.

PRESS: Quick word, Dr. Elders, very quick.

ELDERS: We can't just walk around and feel that we've just said no. We've got to do our job. We've got to start educating our children so they can be empowered to make good decisions.

PRESS: All right, ladies, Dr. Elders, thank you very, very much. Janet Parshall, thanks for coming into the studio. Great debate. Enjoyed it. And we thank you for being here. Doesn't end here. Joe Scarborough and I will be back with some sex talk as our closing comments. And it won't even end there. Don't forget that after the show, Dr.Elders is going to be in our chatroom. You can join her again at We'll be right back.


PRESS: Well Joe, because this is your first night, I'm not going to ask you about how active you were sexually as a teenager.


PRESS: But let's just say that teenagers always have, they are today, and they always will some of them have sex. I think the more information, the better. Dr. Satcher's right.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, information's good, but at the same time, so is abstinence. You know, it's great to know though over the past 20, 30 years that liberals haven't changed. In the '80s, Nancy Reagan talked about just saying 'no' to drugs. Liberals mocked her for a decade. And then the permissiveness of the Clinton administration on drugs, where they dropped the just say no campaign, we saw drug use skyrocketing.

Abstinence messages are working on sex education. And we need to continue that message. PRESS: I'm glad you raise that because the war on drugs is just as stupid as preaching abstinence only. Neither of them work, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: Abstinence teaching works.

PRESS: From the left. I'm Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

SCARBOROUGH: And from the right, I'm Joe Scarborough. Join us again tomorrow night for more CROSSFIRE.