Funding To Urge Sexual Abstinence Ignites Debate

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Hungry for revenue, states are generally eager to snap up all the federal dollars they can. But a provision tucked away in the massive 1996 federal welfare law that earmarks $250 million over five years to teach teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage has prompted a debate in many states about whether to seek the money.

With the grant application deadline looming next month, some state officials are concerned that the program's guidelines may impede their goal of providing a comprehensive sex education that can protect sexually active young people from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

The provision in the law, which President Clinton signed last year, says that grantees must inform young people that "sex outside of marriage can have harmful psychological and physical effects." The federal guidelines also say that states should teach, for example, that sexual abstinence until marriage is the "expected standard for all school-age children." The law prohibits using the funds to teach young people about contraceptives.

So far, officials in at least one state--Wyoming--have said they are planning not to apply for the grant money, arguing that the guidelines are too prescriptive.

"In Wyoming, where states' rights and self-determination are very important, the strings were too large an obstacle to overcome," said Mary Kay Hill, the policy director for GOP Gov. Jim Geringer.

Just Say No

Several other state leaders have voiced concerns that using the federal aid might restrict what teachers can discuss with students at school, though the money is not limited to in-school programs.

"It's difficult to think of this in the classroom, because what do you say when kids ask questions [about contraceptives]?" said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the director of the Maine health department and a pediatrician. "It puts us in a difficult situation." Dr. Mills said that Maine is considering using the money for public-service announcements and media campaigns that promote abstinence.

Other states that allow contraceptives to be discussed in sex education classes have indicated that they are searching for ways to use the money creatively. Officials in Louisiana and Maryland said last week that they plan to use the grants for after-school programs, such as mentoring and recreation. Experts have found that after-school activities, such as sports, are often an effective way of discouraging adolescent pregnancy.

Some states were still debating late last week whether to make a bid for the funds. The federal law sets aside $50 million a year for five years beginning in fiscal 1998, which begins Oct. 1. States must match $3 for every $4 that the federal government contributes.

Gov. Pete Wilson of California has said he plans to apply for a $4.5 million grant, but some lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature have said they would block efforts to authorize the $3 million state match. Lisa Kalustian, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor, said Mr. Wilson's administration was working with the legislature to ensure the state proposal is approved. "The governor believes that abstinence-only programs are a legitimate way to instruct our children," she said.

What Works?

There has long been debate over the effectiveness of sex education lessons that limit discussions to abstinence only.

Several recent research studies have shown that courses that teach students about postponing sexual involvement as well as provide information about contraceptive use can help delay the onset of sexual intercourse.

Though a federal study earlier this year showed that sexual activity and birthrates among teenagers have dropped in the past two years--largely because of wider and improved use of contraceptives--the birthrate among adolescents in the United States is still the highest of any industrialized country. One in four American girls will become pregnant at least once by age 18, experts say.

Sex education advocates say that because 72 percent of high school seniors report that they've had intercourse, classes that teach only abstinence until marriage are ineffective in preventing pregnancy or STDs.

"These programs, by definition, will fail," said Debra W. Haffner, the president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a research and advocacy group based in New York City.

But groups that lobbied for the provision in the welfare law say that there is ample evidence that programs that stress abstinence only have a significant effect on postponing sexual involvement.

In addition, they contend that programs demonstrating how to use contraceptives assume young people cannot control their behavior, said Kristin Hansen, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a Washington-based advocacy group that campaigned for the requirement. "It guts the message of abstinence to hand out a condom at the same time."

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  • In "Learning To Love," from the January/February 1995 Mother Jones, Nell Bernstein writes that efforts to manage the "crisis" of adolescent sexual activity consistently focus on consequences rather than motivations, and are driven in great part by political enmities.
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