NEWARK, N.J. — An abstinence-only program developed by a longtime New Jersey pro-life advocate has been introduced into the public school system of Newark, N.J., which has one of the state's highest rates of teen pregnancy and adolescent HIV infec- tion.

Called “The Choice Game,” the CD-ROM-based interactive program is funded by a $2.3 million grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which is promoting abstinence-only education in public schools and community youth programs.

The game also has received criticism from sex-education advocates who say teaching only abstinence is unrealistic and exposes students to an increased risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, especially among those who are already active sexually.

The nine-week program encourages young participants — even those who have engaged in sex — to take an abstinence pledge at the end and wear a “wait ring” as a sign of commitment to save sex for marriage.

Using soap-opera-style scenarios and professional actors, the computer game also teaches about avoiding drugs and alcohol, ways of saying no to unhealthy choices, building self-respect, forming virtues for life and recognizing

negative media messages and advertisements. Don Karlok, an Emmy Award winner, directs the scenes.

The Newark schools have introduced the program into the ninth-grade health curriculum for more than 8,000 students, who will also receive information on condoms and contraceptives in a separate health class.

“We have to have our young people be more conscious of what they are doing, so I support ‘The Choice Game’ and the concept behind it,” Vincent Mays, director of alternative education for the Newark school system, told the Bergen Record. “We have to end the cycle of teen pregnancy and dropping out of school.”

“The Choice Game” was developed by Kathy DiFiore, founder of the Several Sources Foundation, a Ramsey, N.J., organization that has operated pro-life pregnancy shelters for unwed mothers for more than 20 years in New Jersey. Ideas for the program came directly from her experiences in counseling pregnant teen-agers who have stayed at the shelters, especially those who returned with second and third pregnancies, she said.

“We have been asked for years to make presentations at local, mostly Catholic, schools,” she said. “I was inspired to create an interactive game as a way to reach young people and help them to exercise their choices in a healthy and positive way.”

Youth Day Debut

After years of field testing among parents and students, the Catholic version of the game was made public at World Youth Day 2000 in Rome. A secular version for inner-city youths was later developed, which the Newark public schools will use. DiFiore is working on versions for suburban and Midwest students, and one for Spanish-speakers. She is also working on video formats.

“The Choice Game” is also being used by schools and after-school programs in New York, Ohio, Georgia and Kansas, she said. The CDs can also be used by teen-agers at home under the super-

vision of their parents or by parents alone if they want to learn ways to raise issues of sex and drugs with their children, she added.

“The game raises questions and carries choices to their likely conclusion, so the user can think deeply about the choices he or she makes,” DiFiore said.

The game comes with workbooks for students and parents or guardians. “Get a viral STD now and you carry it for life. … Think about your future. Has abstinence ever hurt anyone?” reads a section in the student book.

‘Indoctrination’?

But the program is not without

critics. Susie Wilson, head of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., calls the program “indoctrination of a moral viewpoint” and potentially confusing for students who will hear an abstinence-only message in one health class and about contraceptives in another.

“These things make much more sense when they're taught all together,” she told the Bergen Record newspaper in October.

The abstinence-versus-condoms education battle has been raging for years in public schools. Planned Parenthood of New York on a Web site for young people calls giving information on condoms and other contraceptives “comprehensive sex education” and says an abstinence-only program “censors information about contraception and condoms for the prevention of unintended pregnancy and STDs.”

Planned Parenthood cites studies indicating that students who receive “comprehensive” education are “more likely to delay sexual activity and to use protection correctly and consistently when they do become sexually active.” It adds that there is no authoritative study showing that abstinence education works.

Abstinence supporters point out that most programs are relatively new. The federal government has been supporting abstinence programs in schools and other community programs since the passage of the 1996 Child Welfare Reform Act,

which gives an eight-part definition of abstinence education known as the A-H rules.

According to the rules, abstinence education must have “as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstinence from sexual activity.”

The rules also state that abstinence outside marriage must be presented as the expected standard for students and the surest way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Programs should complement the message with methods on how to avoid risky behavior and build self-respect and self-sufficiency.

DiFiore thinks her program fits the bill exactly. In fact, she said, the Department of Health and Human Services evaluation of the game stated that it could be used as a model for programs across the nation, and it listed “none” in the drawbacks section.

Carla Fallen, a New Jersey educator, has tested “The Choice Game” and is anxious to teach it.

“It introduces children and teenagers to real-life choices and possibilities that they will face,” she said. “It raises the issues in an environment in which they have a chance to think about their choices and prepares them for the time when they will actually face those situations.”

Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.