States Turn Down Abstinence-Only Grants

By Christina A. Samuels — March 27, 2007 5 min read
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The federal government is trying to bolster support for its abstinence-until-marriage state-grant program, which officials contend is under attack by interest groups misrepresenting its intent.

The Administration for Children and Families, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sent a memorandum last week to state agencies saying they are allowed to use other federal dollars to provide comprehensive sex education if they choose.

“The State Abstinence Education Grant program does not force an ‘either-or’ decision for how states approach teen-pregnancy prevention,” said the March 19 memo. The grant program has received $50 million a year since its inception in 1997. The money is given to states, which are required to partially match the funds and then distribute the money to various public and private agencies.

Days before the government sent out its guidance, Ohio released a budget March 15 indicating it is joining other states—Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—in rejecting the federal money under the state-grant program.

“The governor is not convinced there is conclusive evidence that this program works,” said Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat.

Program Scrutinized

Harry Wilson, the associate commissioner for the family and youth-services bureau, an agency within the HHS Department that oversees the programs, said states are under pressure to reject the money. He cited a September press release from the American Civil Liberties Union that said the group was taking “nationwide action” to combat the abstinence education program in 18 states. Currently, 43 states participate in the state grant program.

But, he said, states are rejecting the federal grant money based on misleading information. Abstinence education is only part of the mission of his department, he said, and the federal government provides money that can be used for sex education through a variety of other sources.

“People are being told, if you take abstinence money, you can’t teach comprehensive sex ed. That’s an absolute, flat-out lie,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview.

Federal Guidelines

All grantees that receive federal money for abstinence-until-marriage programs must equally address each of these eight points:

• The social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity as the program’s exclusive purpose.

• Abstinence is the expected standard outside marriage for all school-age children.

• Abstinence is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems.

• A mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.

• Sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.

• Bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.

• How young people can reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances.

• The importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The department also provides money directly to public and private groups through the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program. President Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal 2008 would set aside $137 million for that program, currently funded at $109 million. The distribution of that money is not affected by a state’s decision to reject the state grant money.

But organizations that oppose the state-grant program say it is disingenuous to say that there are other federal sources dedicated to funding comprehensive sex education, which teaches about contraception and condom use.

Federal health dollars likely are being spent on other health needs, said William Smith, the vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, in New York City.

The real problem is that the federal government is funding a social experiment with its emphasis on abstinence sex education programs, which teach that people should not have sex until they marry, Mr. Smith argued. “This is about a public-health agency that is running against the evidence of what works,” he said.

The federal abstinence program has come under scrutiny recently. In a report released late last year, the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, said that HHS was not reviewing abstinence education programs for scientific accuracy. (“Abstinence Programs Lack Factual Reviews, GAO Study Concludes,” Nov. 29, 2006.)

A legal opinion from the general counsel of the GAO also said abstinence programs must include “medically accurate” information about condoms or risk violating federal law. The Health and Human Services Department responded that the programs are not required to talk about condom usage, but present accurate information about condoms when they do so. (“GAO Opinion Renews Debate on Abstinence-Only Programs,” Nov. 1, 2006.)

In addition, the agency came under fire when it released a document last year that clarified some of the rules states must follow when accepting any federal abstinence grant money.

The memorandum to applicants stressed that each of the eight rules must be equally covered, the applicants “must not” promote condom or other contraceptive use, and applicants also must not promote or encourage the use of any type of contraceptives outside of marriage or refer to abstinence as a form of contraception.

The perceived tightening of the rules last year is what led Wisconsin to opt out of the program, turning down about $600,000, said Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of health and family services.

“They made it very clear to the states they wanted abstinence-only education,” Ms. Marquis said. “From a public-health standpoint, you need to talk about, if you are going to be sexually active, here’s how you can protect yourself from a sexually transmitted disease, and here’s how you can protect yourself from the risk of pregnancy.”

Wisconsin notified its grant recipients March 8 that it would not be accepting the funds, she said.

Mr. Wilson, of the federal family and youth-services bureau, said he believes that HHS is tackling the problems of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases through multiple dimensions. In his own experience, working for a child-welfare agency in Michigan for more than 20 years, teaching abstinence wasn’t a focus, he said.

“But now that I’ve looked at these programs, I wish I had done this with the kids I worked with all those years,” he said. “I’m just surprised at the programs and how well they work.”

Opponents of the grant programs say they, too, support abstinence. But the government’s way of promoting such programs is flawed and must change, they believe.

“You’re going to find more and more states turning this money back,” said Marcela Howell, the vice president of communications and marketing for Advocates for Youth, a Washington organization that supports comprehensive sex education.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as States Turn Down Abstinence-Only Grants


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