In Virginia’s budget debate, an unexpected focus on the birds and the bees

By: - October 5, 2020 12:01 am

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, makes remarks during debate of SB5120 dealing with changes to the elections laws as debate continued in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Thursday, August 27, 2020. Listening, right, is Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

If state legislators didn’t already know about the birds and the bees, by the end of last week, they definitely knew about the BrdsNBz — a national sexual health textline rolled out in Virginia last year.

The program became an unexpected highlight of the General Assembly’s budget discussions after Republicans in the House and Senate drafted last-minute floor amendments to prohibit state expenditures on the textline, which is currently funded through federal grants for maternal and child health services. While BrdsNBz launched in October 2019, the Virginia Department of Health kicked off a postcard awareness campaign last month — catching the attention of legislators in districts that received the mailers.

The program, developed and administered by the American Sexual Health Association through a contract with the VDH, is intended to give teens a chance to ask potentially embarrassing questions to a trained health educator. Common questions listed on the national BrdsNBz webpage include issues from dating and relationships (“What do I do if my friend likes the same person as me?) to contraception and pregnancy (“Can condoms get inside my uterus?”).  

VDH also used federal grant funding intended for abstinence-only education to fund the awareness campaign for the program. This attracted the ire of Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, whose unsuccessful amendment would have gone even further by requiring any responses from the textline to “only include information on the benefits of voluntarily refraining from sexual activity.”

“I’ve been very supportive of sex education for many, many years, but I do not believe that anybody should send a flyer to a young person and encourage them to text them all their questions,” Newman said during a floor debate on Thursday. Other Republican lawmakers — including Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, who sponsored a similarly unsuccessful amendment in the House — had similar concerns that the awareness campaign and the textline itself violated parental rights by potentially exposing teens to information on sexual identity or abortion.

“Bringing in an anonymous outside voice that may not adhere to a family’s convictions and beliefs is just wrong,” she said before a House vote on the amendment. “A vote to pass this amendment by is a vote to put an anonymous stranger in charge of our children’s sexual education.”

Fred Wyand, ASHA’s director of communications, wrote in a Friday email that the organization’s responses are based on guidance from scientific advisors, which include the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

The textline refers users to medical professionals for questions on diagnosable conditions, including sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, but Wyand said the goal is to provide an alternative to information online, which can be “confusing and often misleading.”

“The value we see in the BrdsNBz service is we respond to users with vetted, reliable sources of information,” he added. “We also offer gentle encouragement to users that they turn to a trusted adult for guidance, specifically parents and medical professionals like school nurses.”

A screenshot from the national website for BrdsNBz, a sexual health textline for teens and young adults that recently launched in Virginia.

Still, in some cases, conservative legislators used the floor session to float more nefarious theories about the textline, which is used in at least seven other states. Four more, including Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota and Rhode Island, offer similar services, according to VDH.

“I can tell you who would love to have a job with this company,” Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, said Thursday. “Every child sexual predator, even the ones we just recently paroled. … We’ve just provided a dream job for child sexual predators.”

Byron, an outspoken opponent of abortion, had previously suggested that the textline was being used as propaganda by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and the General Assembly’s new Democratic majority.

“No longer content to indoctrinate our college-aged students, the government appears intent on feeding the values of the extreme left to our children at a very young age,” she said during a House session last week. 

“And knowing this governor and the agenda of the Democratic majority, I fear this is just the beginning of many things to come,” she added.

If Democratic legislators could text a response, it would be that BrdsNBz is really NBD. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun, pointed out Thursday that VDH has a list of commonly asked questions on its website that address many of her colleagues’ concerns.

From Oct. 1, 2019 to Aug. 31, 2020, the textline only received 295 messages from 98 individuals in Virginia, according to VDH spokeswoman Maria Reppas. But “ASHA has reported a large increase in texts in September following the postcard mailing,” she added in an email, “and VDH is waiting on September’s monthly utilization report.”

According to the department, all of ASHA’s health educators have at least a bachelor’s degree and several years of background in education or health-related fields. “All health educators undergo background checks before they are hired,” the website reads.

As for the postcard campaign, VDH says it targeted households with children between 13 and 17 and 18 to 19 year-old young adults in counties with the highest teen pregnancy rates in Virginia — a total of total of 95,956 households across the state. The decision to launch the textline was driven by a recent needs assessment conducted by the department, which found that only half of sexually active teens and young adults reported using condoms.

“Even less reported using other forms of contraception,” the department reported. “Furthermore, in this needs assessment, young people expressed a desire for more readily available, accurate and inclusive sexual health information.” 

VDH pays ASHA $1,500 a month in federal funding to administer the program, according to Reppas. The total cost for running the textline since 2019 has been $16,500, plus $39,814.88 in printing and postage for the postcard awareness campaign — a total of $56,314.88. No state money has gone to BrdsNBz, she added.

The program has been a mainstay even in some states run by conservatives. First developed by a North Carolina nonprofit in 2009, BrdsNBz was run by the same group, now called SHIFT NC, until it was taken over by ASHA in 2018. It remained even after Republicans gained majority of the state’s House and Senate in 2010.

Democratic majorities in the Virginia House and Senate voted down the budget amendments that proposed limiting the program.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.