La. Gov. Pulls Abstinence Education Proposal

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Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana has scrapped a plan for using federal abstinence education money, contending that the proposal by the state public health office strayed from the federal law's goal of promoting sexual abstinence until marriage.

Last month, the governor also appointed Dan Richey, a conservative former state lawmaker, to a newly created, $60,000-a-year post overseeing the abstinence initiative. That move sidestepped the public health office's authority for administering the federal grant.

In a provision tucked into the 1996 federal welfare law, Congress earmarked $250 million over five years to pay for abstinence education in every state.

Gov. Mike Foster

The first batch of awards went out to states late last month. To qualify for the grants, states must agree to match every $4 in federal funds with $3 in state or local money.

But, despite the appeal of extra revenue, the grant program has attracted controversy from its inception.

In July, Louisiana was one of several states that delayed applying for the money until receiving assurances from the Clinton administration that the states would not have to use the money for classroom instruction.

Louisiana's office of public health ultimately submitted an application last summer to use the federal aid to bolster after-school programs, mentoring, and recreation activities for youths across the state.

Research has shown after-school programs to be an effective way to prevent adolescent pregnancy, said Sylvia Sterne, the director of adolescent and school health in the state office of public health. "We know that preaching abstinence by itself doesn't work. What works is keeping teenagers occupied between 3 and 5 in the afternoon," she said.

Spirit of the Law

The goal of the grant program, according to federal documents, is to "strengthen teen pregnancy prevention and to find better solutions for helping young people postpone sexual activity, stay in school, and prepare for work."

But the federal law bars using the money to discuss contraception in the classroom.

Earlier this year, state health officials in Louisiana and several other states argued that the restriction clashed with their existing state curricula, which promote abstinence but also discuss ways that sexually active teenagers can protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. ("Funding To Urge Sexual Abstinence Ignites Debate," June 11, 1997.)

Ms. Sterne said last week that the Louisiana public-health office had already selected--though not formally announced--the nine grantees that were to receive the federal funding, including a Baton Rouge, La., branch of the YMCA and a social service agency.

Defending the governor's decision, Mr. Richey said in a recent interview that Mr. Foster was forced to intervene because at least one of the would-be grantees routinely offered young people referrals to contraceptive services, which he said violated the spirit of the abstinence education initiative.

"It's ironic that the industry in America that passes out condoms is in charge of an abstinence education program," said Mr. Richey, who is convening a committee to draft a new grant application this month.

Mr. Richey said the new grantees would take a "new approach" to abstinence education.

"Governor Foster has asked me to put in a program that would be run by faith-filled groups, not technocrats," he said.

The governor's decision to appoint Mr. Richey and to discard the health office's plan at the 11th hour has sparked criticism from government health workers in Louisiana, as well as school health advocates around the country who charge that the Republican governor is pandering to religious conservatives who helped elect him.

"This is a political move that isn't in line with young people's best interests," said David Mariner, a legislative associate with Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based policy group that supports comprehensive sex education.

Congressional Objections

Louisiana's internal debate is in some ways a window on the ongoing wrangles between congressional Republicans and Clinton administration officials over exactly how the federal abstinence education aid should be used.

Two House Republicans who backed the provision in the welfare law--Reps. Bill Archer of Texas and Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia--sent a letter last month to the director of the Department of Health and Human Service's bureau of maternal and child health, which oversees the grant program. The Nov. 3 letter said several states ought to consider redrafting their grant applications because plans that promoted "abstinence, plus birth control" were contrary to congressional intent.

"If those committed to birth control influence how the money is spent, the state's funds could be placed in jeopardy," the letter said.

Gov. Foster cited the congressional letter when he announced his decision to redraft his state's plan.

But last week an HHS official said no grants were at risk of being rescinded.

Fifty states submitted grant applications for the abstinence education money, and all were in compliance with federal guidelines, said Patricia Campbell, an HHS spokeswoman. "All applications met the requirements as outlined in the law," she added.

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Web Resources
  • The conservative Family Research Council has posted a position paper in support of teaching abstinence on its Web site.
  • The Planned Parenthood Web site hosts several resources aimed at helping teach teenagers how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.
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