Mother's crusade against sex rankles

A physician's assistant who is preaching sexual abstinence to students in Harford and Baltimore counties is at loggerheads with Planned Parenthood and the Harford County Health Department.

On one side is medical professional and parent Nancy Hanrahan, who believes "safe sex is a lie . . . a myth."


Set against Mrs. Hanrahan's views are agencies whose data and philosophies contradict many of the statements she makes during her presentations. She uses scare tactics, they say.

Mrs. Hanrahan, the mother of three children ages 10, 8 and 2, said her children are the impetus for her abstinence plea.


"I care about my kids," she said. "Times are only going to get worse. You have to tell them it's OK to say no."

Her comments reflect a conservative national political atmosphere in which sex education and abortion laws are under attack, and in which Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders was fired Dec. 9 for saying she favored teaching about masturbation to schoolchildren.

Mrs. Hanrahan has been taking her abstinence crusade on the road for the past year, usually when she's invited to public and religious-affiliated schools by parent groups.

"A lot of parents think a great deal of her," said Robin Rich, first vice president of the PTSA at North Harford Middle School.

Mrs. Hanrahan recently gave a presentation to parents and their children at the school. Her program included guest speakers and a showing of the video, "Sex, Lies and the Truth."

The video has come under fire recently from the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) for containing "erroneous information" and "emotional manipulation."

Many of the same statistics pepper Mrs. Hanrahan's talk.

"When I was a teen-ager, there were two sexually transmitted diseases -- syphilis and gonorrhea. Now there are over 20," Mrs. Hanrahan, 39, told her North Harford audience. "If safe sex was true, they wouldn't be out there."


However, SIECUS, a 30-year-old, nonprofit organization, said in its report on the video, "The only relatively new STD is HIV -- the other STDs have been around for many years."

One of Mrs. Hanrahan's biggest concerns, though, is Planned Parenthood, which she calls "the biggest pusher of condoms."

"What kinds do kids use? The free ones from Planned Parenthood, the colored ones," said the slender, effusive woman, after telling the group that color added to condoms makes the latex disintegrate.

"We certainly don't do anything gimmicky or hand out ineffective condoms," said Maris St. Cyr, director of marketing and communication for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "Any condoms distributed by Planned Parenthood are supplied by the state, and also have a spermicide."

Barbara Hernan-Clark, regional AIDS educator for the Harford, Cecil and Kent County health departments, also said she was amazed by Mrs. Hanrahan's comment. "That's so inaccurate," she said. "We distribute condoms at the Health Department, but they are all [approved] under [U.S.] Food and DrugAdministration guidelines."

"Color does not affect the effectiveness of condoms," said Sharon Snider, an FDA spokeswoman. "Colored condoms must meet the same rigorous standards for safety and effectiveness as any other condoms."


Mrs. Hanrahan remains steadfast.

"Even if they don't hand out colored ones, they still hand them out," she said. "Adults should not be handing out a false sense of security."

Condom failures debated

She is referring to a failure rate of 15 percent for condoms, she told her audience.

The SIECUS report puts the figure much lower. "For preventing pregnancy, condoms are estimated to have a 2 percent failure rate among perfect users," it says.

"We present a full range of failure rates on any contraceptive device," said Ms. St. Cyr of Planned Parenthood. "The key is using them correctly -- and using them consistently."


"We get a bad-guy image because we hand out condoms," Ms. Hernan-Clark said. "We're not against abstinence. Abstinence is the best choice for kids. But, in the absence of that, we have some other kids becoming sexually active and not making good choices."

Mrs. Hanrahan also told her school audience that the county Health Department badgers her about doing the abstinence programs. The North Harford resident, who does not get paid for presenting the programs, declined to identify who is bothering her. But she said she received a phone call from someone who asked her if she was qualified to give the presentation.

Ms. Hernan-Clark acknowledged that she called Mrs. Hanrahan once last spring after Mrs. Hanrahan held a program at North Harford High School. "The information was so grossly inaccurate," the Health Department educator said. "My concern is that she is passing out misinformation."

But Mrs. Hanrahan said her program is not supposed to be just medically based. "I want to do a totality thing," she said. "That's why I bring in other people. It's not just what Nancy Hanrahan says."

Speakers at her recent presentation included a statistical epidemiologist, two other physician's assistants and former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Dave Johnson.

Physician's assistant Steve Shive told the North Harford Middle audience that "every high school in the county has HIV."


Mrs. Hanrahan added that she heard about one school in Harford that had 11 HIV cases among its students.

"Nobody would have access to that information except the Health Department," Ms. Hernan-Clark said. "The information is under strict federal confidentiality guidelines."

Ms. Hernan-Clark said the Health Department has a breakdown of HIV cases according to age group and zip codes in the county, but officials do not know which high school, if any, an infected person attends.

Mrs. Hanrahan also claims credit for introducing the video, "Sex, Lies and the Truth," into the Harford County school system, which adheres to abstinence-based sex education.

"All programs stress abstinence as the only way to prevent disease and pregnancy," schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison said.

Video attacked


SIECUS, in a critique of the video, called its producer, Focus on the Family, "a national far right organization [that] has produced a slick video. . . . The video relies on scientific inaccuracies, scare tactics and sexist and racist stereotypes."

The organization evaluated the movie as part of a 2 1/2 -year project examining abstinence-based curriculums in public schools, said its author Leslie M. Kantor, SIECUS director of planning and special projects.

After reviewing the SIECUS report, Harford school administrators said they stick by their 1992 decision to use "Sex, Lies and the Truth" in county schools.

"We believe that the videotape is a responsible effort to help young people recognize abstinence as an option for a healthy lifestyle," said Deborah J. Heiberger, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in county schools.

Mrs. Heiberger acknowledged that the video's statistics are skewed to present extreme ends of medical information. However, the school system makes sure that teachers receive correct information in staff development programs, she said.

"Teachers in the classroom fill in the gap of information in the video," Mrs. Heiberger said.


Parents who attended the North Harford program said they appreciated Mrs. Hanrahan's message.

"It is important to teach your child, even at the middle-school level, there are alternatives," said Carol Lancaster, a teacher at Dulaney High School in Baltimore County who brought her 11-year-old son to the program. "I want to prevent my children from being exposed to things I can't protect them from.

"It's scary. As a high school teacher, I know what's out there. They need all the help they can get on how to say no," said Mrs. Lancaster, who has two other children, ages 8 and 4.

Mrs. Hanrahan is scheduled to present another sexual abstinence program March 21 at Joppatowne High School.