WASHINGTON—A $50 million annual federal program to promote sexual abstinence continues to meet with resistance from federal and state officials around the country. A House Commerce Subcommittee looked into the problem at a Sept. 25 hearing, which included witnesses representing government agencies and abstinence programs.

The education initiative, part of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, began Oct. 1 last year and is scheduled to provide $250 million over five years. The money, part of the Maternal and Child Health block grant, is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Funds are assigned to states through the same low-income formula used to determine other forms of social assistance. Annual allocations range from a high of $5.8 million for Cali-fornia to $69,855 each for Utah and Vermont.

The program has attracted opposition from the outset because it excludes promotion of contraception (which is provided for in other federal law).

Pressure from organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and the indifference or even hostility of some state health departments has resulted in federal funds being turned down or diverted to unrelated uses. Last fiscal year, New Hampshire declined funds and California chose not to spend its money.

In addition, HHS has drafted guidelines which appear to undermine sections of the law such as provisions which say a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.”

Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council and a prospective Republican presidential candidate, told the Register: “It shows how much this is an ideological struggle about what we should be teaching our children about love and sex.”

The recent hearing was held by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to evaluate the implementation of the program. The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), has questioned the Clinton administration's commitment to the intent of the law as defined by Congress.

Peter Brandt, head of a private watchdog group set up last year to monitor state compliance with the law, told the subcommittee, “We see great hope in this program. But while there are a number of successes, there are also some horror stories. There has been a concerted attempt by some in the public health establishment to water down, and in some cases to even violate, the intent of the law.”

“This subversive effort has been successful in too many states,” Brandt said. “The potential and importance of the abstinence law is too exciting for Congress to allow anything short of full national commitment to the sexual health of our children.”

Brandt's group, the National Coalition for Abstinence Education (NCAE), represents more than 60 local and state organizations committed to pre-marital chastity. A number of these entities are statewide family institutes affiliated with Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family.

In their status report on compliance, NCAE identifies only 16 or 17 states which “have embraced the intent of the law.” Ten states have adopted regulations which attack the law's intent, 21 others have diluted the law, and two are not participating.

Among the most conspicuous state violators, according to NCAE, are Montana, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Utah, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. In Montana, for example, 78% of the funds are being used for overhead. Abstinence and safe-sex messages are combined in North Carolina.

But the most bizarre circumvention of the law appears to be in Utah, where funds have been diverted to purchase balls, hockey sticks and pucks, video cameras for sporting events, payment for referees, and other recreation programs.

Another major issue in the controversy is a so-called “A-to-H” definition, in which the law spells out eight component parts of abstinence education. Brandt said these definitions were meant to be “a composite, or mosaic, to be considered in its totality. The eight-part definition was not to be a pick-and-choose exercise,” a procedure which creates contradictions when some parts are endorsed and others are scuttled.

Speaking of Rhode Island, Brandt said, “This state stands at the pinnacle of arrogance. Potential grantees never saw the A-H definition. The state literally rewrote the statute. Abstinence from sexual activity became abstinence from sexual intercourse.” Other forms of sexual activity are still considered abstinence.

Also receiving criticism was HHS. Testifying before the subcommittee, Dr. Peter van Dyck, acting associate administrator for Maternal and Child Health, emphasized the need to reduce teen pregnancies. But Brandt contended that department officials have dragged their feet, encouraged subterfuge, and said one official “was part of an orchestrated attempt to get the states to refuse funding.”

Further, that same official, Tom Kring, was taped as saying, “If I were in charge, I would provide limousine service for anyone [pregnant teenagers] who lived within 50 miles of the border to go across the state line for an abortion so it would be paid for and counted by another state.”

Despite these criticisms, the year-old federal abstinence program can claim several successes. Virginia, according to Claude Allen, state secretary of HHS, “welcomed the federal funds for abstinence education as a way to complement our existing efforts to strengthen the family unit.” Gov. James Gilmore strongly supports the program.

The resulting Virginia Abstinence Education Initiative embarked on a media blitz last summer. This past summer the program ran radio spots and a “Not Me, Not Now” television campaign. Brochures, posters, and T-shirts are also being distributed.

In addition, six abstinence programs have been developed. Included in these are workshops for secular and religious social providers. Allen said, “These workshops will emphasize the promotion of the ‘abstinence until marriage’ message in the clinical, faith, human service, and community-based program settings.”

The embryonic program in South Carolina was given careful supervision by the state before a contractor was chosen to implement the program. According to Larry Huff, director of family policy for Gov. David Beasley, “Inasmuch as Congress wrote the law, the state of South Carolina assumed a high duty to take no liberties with congressional intent.

“For that reason, we made it clear to potential providers that they must adhere to the spirit of the law, by accepting only those programs that (in the words of the congressional guidance) ‘send the unambiguous message that sex outside of marriage is wrong.’”

Another highly regarded program, in Louisiana, benefited from Gov. Mike Foster's direct involvement. The state's multifaceted approach crystallized after the governor took control in November 1997. The program includes local community projects, a pilot rural parish (county) effort, a statewide grass-roots mobilization, free and paid media spots, and a clearinghouse to disseminate abstinence education.

The coordinator of Louisiana's program, Dan Richey, said, “It's time for a rebirth of truth to lead us back to healthy lifestyles. It is incumbent upon us to lead a fallen generation back to ordered liberty. It's time for a return to responsibility, healthy lifestyles, and a bright future. It's time for abstinence — the new sexual revolution!”

A longtime leader in abstinence education, Kathleen Sullivan of Project Reality, offered several suggestions on how the block grant program could be enhanced from Washington. These include funneling money through an abstinence division within the office of the governor in each state (as South Carolina and Louisiana have done); giving greater weight to chastity education by trebling funding; and eliminating the requirement for state matching money.

While federal and state officials wrestle with implementing this program in its second year, Catholics and others of faith continue to look at ways to promote abstinence. “Abstinence-based instruction is the only type of so-called ‘sex education’ that is both morally correct and effective in preventing the creation of a new life,”' said Father Richard Welch CSSR, president of Human Life International. “All other efforts are grounded in moral debasement.”

Fortunately, abstinence also is being taught successfully through private programs. Among these are Sullivan's national Project Reality, based in Glenview, Ill.; Friends First of Longmont, Colo.; True Love Waits, established by the Baptist Sunday School Board; the more holistic Best Friends Foundation of Washington, D.C.; and Real Love, headed by Catholic writer and chastity lecturer Mary Beth Bonacci.

Church teaching, of course, is clear on this matter. The Catechism of the Catholic Church , 2348, speaks of the broader virtue of chastity: “All the baptized are called to chastity. The Christian has ‘put on Christ,’ the model for all chastity. All Christ's faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life. At the moment of his Baptism, the Christian is pledged to lead his affective life in chastity.”

Father Frank Pavone, international director of the Priests for Life, told the Register: “This controversy [about use of the federal funds] shows the need for the respective efforts of both church and state. The state, indeed, should fund abstinence programs, but that alone obviously does not achieve the goal.

“People need to experience conversion of the mind and heart, enabling them to see the meaning of human sexuality and, therefore, the value of such programs.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.