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Tense Debate as House Shifts HIV Funding to Abstinence Education

Some of the most emotional, and uncomfortable, debate on the House budget Tuesday came when a state representative asked fellow lawmakers to move money from HIV and STD prevention to abstinence education.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, is shown in the Speaker's Committee Room on May 17, 2013.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional comment from Reps. Spitzer and Dutton.

Seven hours into Tuesday's debate on the House's $210 billion two-year budget, things got first heated and then uncomfortable as state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, successfully pushed an amendment to move $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education. 

A line of opponents gathered behind the podium as Spitzer laid out his amendment and proceeded to grill, quiz and challenge the lawmaker on his motives.

"Is it not significant that Texas has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the country?" state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked. "Does it bother you to know there are people walking around with HIV, undiagnosed?" 

Turner and Spitzer also had an exchange over how Spitzer had arrived at his price tag. "If we gave you a billion dollars for abstinence, would that be enough?" Turner asked. "Or would you need two?"

"My goal is for everyone to be abstinent until they are married," Spitzer replied.

As Sylvester Turner ran out of time, Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, took to the podium and came to Spitzer's defense, saying, "I don't think we can have enough money for abstinence training."

Spitzer, a doctor, then addressed questions brought by Alfonso "Poncho" Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, who asked whether his position was representative of the medical community.

“You feel as a medical doctor that the position you are taking, not just from a fiscal standpoint, is prudent for the medical community?” Nevarez asked.

"I do," Spitzer responded.  

Texas allows school districts to decide whether and how to approach sex education, as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other preventive method, like condoms and birth control. But a number of representatives questioned the effectiveness of this program.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pointed out that the state currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and the single-highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy. 

"It may not be working well," said Spitzer, in reference to the current abstinence education program. "But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing."

State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, took to the podium and asked Spitzer, "Were you taught abstinence education? Did it work?" 

Spitzer replied that he was a virgin when he married at age 29. "I've only had sex with one woman in my life, and that's my wife," Spitzer said.

Dutton continued. "And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?"

"I'm not sure that's an appropriate question," Spitzer responded.

The House was called to order, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, took the microphone. "Earlier you stated that you could not get STDs without having sex," she said.

“It depends on what your definition of sex is," said Spitzer. "I can go through of all of this if you want to.”

"If you still think you can't get an STD without having sex, then maybe we need to educate you," Collier added.

Spitzer's amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47. 

After their exchange, neither Dutton or Spitzer laid down the gloves.

Spitzer said he knew the topics were "lightning rods," and expected the debate to be contentious. But he thought Dutton’s line of questioning was inappropriate.

"They wanted to catch me off guard, paint me into a corner and catch me being a hypocrite," Spitzer said. "But if people ask questions, I answer questions."

"This is my first year here, and I'm not sure what is normal," he added. "But I'm pretty sure it doesn't usually devolve into discussion of a person's sexual history."

But Dutton said Spitzer opened the door by highlighting his own belief in abstinence.

"For him to use himself as an example to me was inappropriate," said Dutton. "My questions were not inappropriate."

"When he injected that abstinence had worked for him, and that he had his first sexual encounter when he was 29, I thought it was appropriate to ask," he added. "Was that the result of abstinence, or was it that no one said yes?" 

"When people sing from the hymn book of abstinence, they want people to do what he did," Dutton added. "It might not be realistic, and we can't put our heads in the sand and believe that."

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