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Congress May Abolish 'Chastity Act,' Some Predict

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With a Democrat in the White House, a controversial federal program that funds sex-education efforts stressing abstinence and prenatal care for teenage mothers may be abolished or reshaped into a broader sex-education program with a less conservative focus, Congressional sources and some of the program's participants predict.

Since its inception in 1981, the Adolescent Family Life Act, commonly known as the "chastity act,'' has funded 72 community-based prevention projects and 91 research projects that encourage adolescents to delay sexual activity until marriage.

But the program's support has always been tenuous, and recipients of A.F.L.A. grants fear it will not survive an Administration with a pro-choice stance on family-planning issues.

The first overt indication of the Administration's intent will come when President Clinton issues his budget proposals on April 5. Some observers predict that it will not include funding for the A.F.L.A.

"On Nov. 3, we realized the leadership was not going to be for abstinence,'' said Leana Benn, the executive director of Teen Aid, which publishes one of the most widely used abstinence curricula. "From the contacts that I have in Washington, I would say that the abstinence program would not be refunded.''

Ms. Benn said that Jerry Bennett--the acting deputy secretary for population affairs at the Public Health Service and the director of the A.F.L.A. program until a permanent deputy secretary is appointed--has denounced the program to grantees.

"I never said to anyone that abstinence programs would not be re-funded,'' Mr. Bennett said in an interview last week.

However, Mr. Bennett acknowledged that the program's history and image could make it a likely target.

"Abstinence is an important component in the effort to curb teenage pregnancy, but we might have done ourselves a disservice by being perceived as religious tools,'' he said.

A Political Deal

The chastity act was the product of a 1981 political bargain. Conservatives agreed not to block the reauthorization of Title X of the Public Health Service Act, the primary federal family-planning program. In exchange, Democrats agreed to support the relatively small A.F.L.A., which became Title XX of the same act.

Supporters wanted to boost research and curricula that urge abstinence. Students who attend the classes must have their parents' consent, and discussion of abortion is barred.

Since its inception, the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics have argued that the program violates the constitutional separation of church and state. But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that claim in 1985 when it ruled that teaching teenagers the value of chastity is a "reasonably secular goal.'' (See Education Week, April 6, 1988.)

More recently, the áŸãŸìŸõŸ and public-health officials have charged that some A.F.L.A. curricula are religious in nature and medically inaccurate. After examining materials used in Florida classes, a federal district judge ordered that information provided under the A.F.L.A. be accurate and free from religious doctrine. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1993.)

Meanwhile, the program has remained controversial on Capitol Hill. When Title X and Title XX were due for reauthorization in 1985, Democratic and Republican lawmakers each tacked on abortion-related amendments unpalatable to the other side, blocking any action. Neither faction would allow one program to be extended without the other.

But Congress has continued to fund them without formal authorizing language. The chastity act received $7.5 million this year, and Title X got $173 million.

In a strong indication that the change in administrations has shifted the political balance, a Title X reauthorization bill has begun working its way through Congress--without any mention of Title XX.

The Clinton Administration has yet to reveal its position, and both supporters and critics of the A.F.L.A. are speculating about the future of Title XX.

Abolish or Amend?

Some observers suggest that Democrats may decide to re-fund the small program rather than incite conservatives' wrath--and unfriendly amendments to Title X.

"There would be a heavy battle over this,'' one Republican Senate aide said. "It doesn't make political sense to cut it.''

But even some of the program's original sponsors doubt it will remain intact. And many observers speculate that it might be expanded rather than abolished.

"No way the current program would be re-funded; scaring kids doesn't work,'' a Democratic aide who works on children's issues said. "But it could be revamped.''

Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., said she plans to introduce a bill that would restructure Title XX programs to include contraception counseling and education.

"I am far more interested in prevention, and that requires you to be able to be educated about contraceptive use,'' said Representative Johnson, who said she will request "at least $30 million'' for the program.

A.F.L.A. supporters are hoping her approach will succeed.

"There is a place for this program, and there are not many other funding sources out there,'' said April Thoms, the president of the Responsible Sexual Values Program, which sponsors courses that teach AIDS prevention, abstinence, and "how to make wise choices for the future.''

"We have to move toward a more comprehensive model,'' Mr. Bennett said. "Just because one particular group supports abstinence doesn't mean that should be our only focus.''

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