Report on Abstinence Funds Raises Questions

By Adrienne D. Coles — April 14, 1999 4 min read

A year of federal funding for abstinence-only programs has had little effect on existing school-based sexuality education, a report released here last week suggests.

And in light of the report, some proponents of the law that designates money for such abstinence-only education are concerned that states have implemented programs that skirt the intent of the legislation.

For More Information

“Between the Lines: States’ Implementation of the Federal Government’s Section 510(b) Abstinence Education Program in Fiscal Year 1998,” is available for $24.95. Contact: Publications Fulfillment, SIECUS, 120 West 42nd Street, Suite 350, New York, NY 10036;
Phone: (212) 819-9770;
Fax: (212) 819-9776.

The report, released here at a meeting of the Sexuality Information Education Council of the United States, says the first year of such funding did not change how information about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases is provided in most states. Only five--Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma--have passed laws requiring that sex education programs also teach about abstinence from premarital sex, the report says.

“It presents a mixed picture,” Debra W. Haffner, the president of SIECUS, said of the report. “Many states tried very hard to act responsibly, and others chose to follow the letter of the law.”

SIECUS advised states to either reject the funds or to design programs that would help young people abstain from premarital sex without using “fear based” curricula, Ms. Haffner said.

Louisiana, South Carolina, and South Dakota did not participate in the SIECUS survey, which was financed by a grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

$250 Million in Aid

In 1996, Congress designated $250 million to be spent over five years for states to provide programs that stress abstinence from sexual activity until marriage and make no mention of contraceptive devices or birth control. At the time, some state officials were concerned that those guidelines would impede their goal of providing comprehensive sex education that teaches about human development, sexual behavior, and sexual health. (“Funding To Urge Sexual Abstinence Ignites Debate,” June 11, 1997.)

Eventually all 50 states and the District of Columbia applied for funding, which states were expected to match. Last year, all states except California and New Hampshire provided matching funds for programs.

Federal grants were awarded in three areas--media campaigns, community-based organizations, and educational agencies; 251 grants were awarded to education agencies such as state education departments, school districts, and public and private schools. Of the 23 states that funded classroom activities, only Iowa reported that it would replace some existing sex education programs with abstinence-only education.

“If a school perhaps had a classroom teaching sex education using these funds, they would have to follow the guidelines,” said Diane Heckman, the coordinator for the “abstinence-only until marriage” program in the Iowa health department.

Interpreting the Law

Passed as part of the 1996 federal welfare law, the abstinence-only provision allows states to provide education and mentoring, counseling, and adult supervision to promote abstinence from sexual activity.

Daniel Daley, the director of public policy for the New York City-based SIECUS, said states have been able to tap into the funds without changing their approach to comprehensive sex education.

In a number of states, grants have gone to groups or agencies to create after-school programs that offer recreation activities, mentoring, community service, tutoring, or remedial education.

“There is a question of whether state spending is consistent with the law,” said Peter Brandt, the spokesman for the National Coalition for Abstinence Education, a Colorado Springs, Colo., group that monitors state implementation of the abstinence-only law.

“We want the money to be used to accomplish what the program intended--not fund hockey teams or advertising campaigns,” Mr. Brandt said.

But Lynn Weise, an HIV/AIDS-prevention specialist with the Maryland education department, argued that to implement the law as it was intended would be detrimental to students. ''It doesn’t incorporate all kids or families,” she said, “and it puts them at risk.”

Gail Harding, the coordinator of family-life education for the New York state education department, agreed. “Congress doesn’t have the right to impose their morality on people or withhold information that will keep students healthy and safe,” she said. “Sexual health shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s a health issue.”

Ultimately, said Ms. Haffner, the SIECUS president, “it is in our hands to ensure that every young person has the services, information, and support to grow up to be sexually healthy adults.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Report on Abstinence Funds Raises Questions


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