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Abstinence Bills Gaining Popularity and Momentum

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State lawmakers across the country want schools to stop teaching about "safe sex" and start advocating no sex.

Bills have been introduced in at least 12 states that would launch programs intended to persuade children to eschew sex until they are married.

Some bills call for a statewide media campaign to drive home the abstinence message; others would rewrite state sex-education laws to focus instruction on the message "just say no."

Some of these proposals already have failed, and others face tough fights. But lobbyists and education policymakers in many states report that bills promoting the teaching of abstinence in schools are gaining popularity and momentum.

Fueling this change is renewed national concern about pregnancy among teenagers, they said.

In Arizona, for example, concern about the state's pregnancy rate among unmarried teenagers--the highest in the country--has prompted liberal and conservative groups to look for common ground from which to fight the problem. The resulting measure, calling for a $1.2 million abstinence-based education campaign, was whittled down by lawmakers. But last month, the Arizona legislature approved $140,000 for a media campaign with a no-sex message.

Teaching abstinence carries a new cachet among lawmakers in part because parents are increasingly opposed to comprehensive sex-education programs, according to Linda Page, the education-policy manager for Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based group that works to promote traditional values.

"This is a new thing that's the result of a parental revolt," she said.

'Bills Are Moving'

Abstinence-education bills have been introduced in the past, said Marcy Wilder, the legal director of the Washington-based National Abortion Rights Action League. "But the bills this year are moving," she said, "and that is the direct result of the 1994 election results," in which Republicans made big gains in state legislatures.

In North Carolina, Republicans picked up 25 seats in the House and now control that chamber for the first time in a century. A bill sponsored by the House G.O.P. whip to require school districts to offer instruction in sexual abstinence cleared an education panel last week and appears headed for approval in that chamber.

Supporters of teaching abstinence in sex-education programs in New Jersey are hopeful that Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's endorsement of the idea will lead to a new law. The legislature approved such a bill in 1993, but then-Gov. James J. Florio, a Democrat, vetoed it.

In the Missouri House, meanwhile, an abstinence bill has been blocked in committee for years. But this session, gains by the G.O.P., which is still in the minority, helped the bill's Republican sponsor collect the floor votes required to trigger a little-used parliamentary device that springs a bill from committee without the panel's approval.

"The minority has been throwing its weight around quite a bit," said Robert J. Quinn, the legislative director for the Missouri Education Association and a former state representative.

100 Percent Safety

Though the bills being debated cover different facets of abstinence education, many would require schools to stress that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS.

Too many sex-education courses exaggerate the benefits of using condoms to prevent the spread of the virus that causes AIDS, argued Republican Sen. Gerald Cardinale, the sponsor of a bill pending in the New Jersey Senate.

"If you're going to say that using condoms minimizes risk," he said, "you can't give the impression that it's completely safe."

The Missouri legislation also would require that sex-education curricula discourage sexual permissiveness and "teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage."

Perhaps the most far-reaching proposal is the North Carolina bill introduced by Republican Rep. Robin Hayes that would require schools to teach that "abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children."

AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases will still be discussed in class, Mr. Hayes said, but "there will be more stress on the failure of condoms" to prevent the spread of disease.

In addition, distribution or demonstration of condoms would no longer be allowed on school property, and districts would need written permission from parents before their children could attend any sex-education class.

Mr. Hayes's critics charge such a curriculum would scare children into accepting his version of morality.

"It's completely fear-based," said Beth Ising, the executive director of the North Carolina chapter of naral. "The underlying message to kids is, 'Have sex and you'll die.'"

Other critics of abstinence-only instruction contend that it does little to curb sexual activity among young people.

Those who preach abstinence are ducking the harder job of preventing the spread of disease among those teenagers who are having sex, said Peggy Brick, the chairwoman of the board for the New York City-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

"It's safe for politicians, teachers, or administrators to teach abstinence," she said, "but it's very dangerous for the young people."

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