Unlikely snag for D.C. Circuit Court nominee: Abstinence sex ed

Unlikely snag for D.C. Circuit Court nominee: Abstinence sex ed

Cornelia Pillard, a Georgetown law professor who has been nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, is facing a campaign to tank her nomination from a group that boosts abstinence-only sex education for young people.

Pillard was questioned closely by Republicans during her first confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning about an article she wrote in 2007 that suggested that abstinence-only sex education may violate the equal protection rights of women.

The federal government provides millions of dollars each year to fund abstinence-only sex education that tells young people not to have sex until marriage. The government also funds so-called comprehensive sex ed, which encourages the use of contraception.

"You were arguing that if a state decides to teach abstinence-only, that that decision by state and local officials in your judgment may well be unconstitutional and it is an appropriate role for a federal court to strike [it] down," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on Wednesday, after telling Pillard he had "concerns" about her nomination.

Pillard replied that she was an academic when she wrote the article and was "pushing boundaries" — asking hypothetical questions about the law. She added that teaching abstinence in itself is not discriminatory, but that using sexual stereotypes in the curriculum may well be.

"Let me say first, I'm a mother," Pillard replied. "I have two teenage children — one boy and one girl. If my children are being taught in sex education, I want both my children to be taught to say 'no,' not just my daughter. I want my son to be taught that, too. The article was very explicit in saying I don't see any constitutional objection … to abstinence-only education that does not rely upon and promulgate sex stereotypes."

The law professor identified what she called problematic stereotypes in some sex ed curricula at the time, including statements such as "the girl may need to put the brakes on first to help the boy" and "women gauge their happiness and judge their success on their relationships. Men's happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments."

Pillard hypothesized that teaching these stereotypes using public funds "violates the constitutional bar against sex stereotyping." She wrote that sex education conservatives believe "females' chastity is more important than males'; responsibility for guarding chastity is assigned particularly to females; marriage is the only proper venue for sexual intimacy; men's sex drive and sexual satisfaction is privileged while women's is demonized or ignored; and childrearing is viewed as primarily women's responsibility."

The article has enraged abstinence-only advocates, who are asking senators to oppose Pillard's nomination. "I really believe she has deemed herself unfit for the position," Valerie Huber, the president of the National Abstinence Education Association, told Yahoo News. "Our classes very much promote sexual restraint among both young men and young women equally."

Pillard declined to comment on Huber's criticisms, citing the confirmation process.

While Pillard was questioned closely about the paper, Republicans on the committee also stressed that the D.C. court, which is considered to be the second must influential in the country, after the Supreme Court, does not need new judges because its caseload is lighter than some other appellate courts.

Cruz said he believes Obama's three recent nominations to the D.C. court are "an attempt by the administration to pack that court because the D.C. Circuit has been one of the few restraints on government power exercised by the Obama administration."

Obama also has nominated Patricia Ann Millett and Robert Leon Wilkins to fill empty seats on the court. He announced the three nominations in June, and warned Congress not to block a vote on his picks. "There is no reason aside from politics for Republicans to block these individuals from getting an up or down vote," Obama said at the time.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, has argued that the D.C. Circuit has too many judges, signaling that Republicans may move to block a vote on Pillard in the full Senate.

Obama's nominations are almost guaranteed to sail through the committee, which is Democrat-controlled.

Pillard worked for the solicitor general's office and the Justice Department under the Clinton administration before joining Georgetown's faculty.