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Abstaining from federal sex-ed funds

More states are refusing grants to teach chastity, objecting to restrictions.

April 08, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

In an emerging revolt against abstinence-only sex education, states are turning down millions of dollars in federal grants, unwilling to accept White House dictates that the money be used for classes focused almost exclusively on teaching chastity.

In Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland said that regardless of the state's sluggish economic picture, he didn't see the point in taking part in the controversial State Abstinence Education Program anymore.

Five other states -- Wisconsin, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Montana and New Jersey -- have dropped out of that grant program or plan to do so by the end of this year. California has refused all along to participate in the program, which is managed by a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Strickland, like most of the other governors who are pulling the plug on the funding, said the program had too many rules to be practical. Among other things, the money cannot be used to promote condom or contraceptive use. Students are to be taught that bearing children outside wedlock is likely to harm society and that sexual activity outside marriage is "likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

And, according to the governor's spokesman, Keith Dailey, Strickland sees little evidence that the program has been effective. "We've spent millions of dollars on such education since Ohio first started getting grant money in 1998," Dailey said. "If the state is going to spend money on teaching and protecting kids, the governor believes it's better to spend it in a smarter, more comprehensive approach."

Strickland announced Ohio's withdrawal from the program last month.

That states are walking away from such funding alarms abstinence-only groups, who say dozens of nonprofit sex education groups will have to close, undermining progress against teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

States have used the money to help public and private schools with educational programs, to develop classroom instruction for nonprofits, and to pay for advertising and other media campaigns.

"There are kids who don't want to know how to put on a condom, because they don't want to have sex," said Leslee J. Unruh, founder and president of the South Dakota-based Abstinence Clearinghouse, the nation's largest network of abstinence educators. "So why can't kids who want to abstain have equal time, funding and education in the classroom as kids who are having sex?"

To critics of abstinence-based education, the policy shift addresses growing concerns that sexually active youth aren't getting access to medically accurate information about contraceptives and disease prevention.

In an Oct. 3 report that surveyed abstinence programs in 10 states, the Government Accountability Office concluded that such programs were not proved to work, and at times contained inaccuracies about condoms and AIDS.

In the report, one state official described an instance in which educational materials "incorrectly suggested that HIV can pass through condoms because the latex used in condoms is porous." The official also showed that the state had "had to correct a statement indicating that when a person is infected with the human papillomavirus, the virus is 'present for life' because, in almost all cases, this is untrue," the report said.

"Just saying no is not working," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, which advocates comprehensive sex education, including contraceptive information. "These are efforts by the federal government to fund ideological programs, not healthcare or medical programs."

White House support for the grants -- which are sometimes called Title V grants, for the portion of the Social Security Act under which they were established -- remains strong.

In a federal budget that is tight for nearly everything but entitlements, domestic security, and the military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush has asked Congress to carve out $191 million for the abstinence program in fiscal 2008 -- an increase of $28 million over current funding.

From 1995 to 2002, teen pregnancy rates dropped 24%, according to a study by Columbia University and the Guttmacher Institute. The report, published in the American Journal of Public Health in January, attributed 14% of the decline to teens waiting longer to have sex, and the rest to contraception.

Federal officials hope to prevent other states from dropping out of the Title V program. Late last month, a memo by the Family and Youth Services Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families clarified that although state agencies could only use Title V grants for abstinence-based programs, those programs could be part of a broader curriculum that includes contraception education.

"This is not an either-or-situation," said Harry Wilson, the associate commissioner of the bureau, which manages the program.

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