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Federal Abstinence Money Under Scrutiny

15 states get 'failing grade'for programs to implement funds

BY JOSEPH ESPOSITO

June 14-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/14/98 at 1:00 PM

 

WASHINGTON—Controversy has increased over a federal program to encourage sexual abstinence, and at least one state — New Hampshire — will decline funds to implement the initiative. Even some states which are accepting federal money have designed programs which alarm abstinence supporters. Some leaders have suggested that such programs might be better left to dedicated groups funded by private sources.

The 1996 welfare reform bill includes a $50 million annual authorization for abstinence education. The money, part of the Maternal and Child Health block grant, is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services and goes directly to the states. The program began Oct. 1, 1997 and provides funds for five years, making the abstinence initiative a $250 million effort.

Congressional intent of the law is clear. Funds cannot be used to promote sex outside the institution of marriage. Contraceptive support, which is amply provided for in other federal law, is excluded from this money. The level of aid is determined by a low-income formula which is the basis for other forms of social assistance. Allocations range from a high of $5.8 million for California to $69,855 each for Utah and Vermont.

Despite this windfall to combat teen pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases, the program has encountered stiff opposition in some states. Planned Parenthood helped lead an effort which resulted in New Hampshire's recent refusal to accept its first year allocation of $82,862. The Abstinence Education Resource Institute in Manchester had been chosen by the state Department of Education to implement the program before the state changed its mind.

Peter Brandt, acting executive director of the National Coalition for Abstinence Education, said, “There is no doubt in my mind that this decision is being driven by social ideology and not by public policy considerations. The citizens of New Hampshire ought to be outraged. Kids in New Hampshire are being deprived of free money to receive the message they desperately need to hear.”

Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.) wrote a letter to the New Hampshire House of Representatives May 12 asking them to reconsider the decision. In the letter he said, “It is now known that special interest groups opposed to abstinence education lobbied hard for a reversal of the state's decision to accept these funds. As a result, many have concluded that there is more to this baffling decision than meets the eye.”

In California, the legislature is debating that state's involvement. In response to subcommittee action taken earlier in the month, assembly Republicans tried but failed to restore the federal funds to the state budget in a May 28 floor vote. But the Republican minority will continue to push for the money. California's allocation amounts to nearly 12% of all authorized aid.

According to Assemblyman Steve Baldwin (R-San Diego County), “The Republicans feel that California's teenage pregnancy rate is so out of control that we are prepared to fight for federal abstinence funds. If that means a battle for the budget, so be it.” Baldwin noted that Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, also supports accepting the federal money.

The National Coalition for Abstinence Education, a private association of 70 state and national organizations, has been formed to monitor the federal program. It has given a letter grade to each state which has submitted plans to the Department of Health and Human Services. Five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina) have received “A” grades for exemplary designs. Programs in these and perhaps other states, Brandt believes, could “appreciably, significantly reduce teen pregnancy by 30-50%.”

On the other hand, using a 12-point criteria, 15 states have received failing grades. This is largely due to state health departments creating guidelines which contradict the intent of the program, according to Brandt. One disappointment, for example, is Rhode Island. Chastity supporters there have been rebuffed in attempts to expand the program to include girls, to prevent referrals encouraging contraceptives or abortion, and in their effort to get teams of skilled chastity teachers to go into schools.

Brandt says of the Rhode Island program, “There is no doubt in my mind there is a violation of the spirit of the law, perhaps even the letter of the law.” A member of the Rhode Island Right to Life organization, David O'Connell of East Providence, has met several times with the state health department and is disappointed with the outcome. Although originally enthusiastic about the law, O'Connell now believes that “the best deal of all would be that Rhode Island would be defunded for the next four years.” While the controversy continues over the federally-funded program, abstinence initiatives supported by public funds in some states and by private sources continue to prosper. The Michigan Abstinence Partnership celebrated its fifth anniversary in May. Governor John Engler attributes a significant decline in teen pregnancies in Michigan to this program, which targets the 9- to 14-year-old age group. Another example is Project Women in Need in Pennsylvania (profiled in the Register, May 24). This program, which disburses state funds to 90 pro-life centers, has an important chastity education component.

Among the most notable local, private abstinence efforts is the Best Friends Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. Headed by Elayne Bennett, wife of public figure William Bennett, Best Friends is an 11-year-old program which began at Georgetown University. It now runs comprehensive development programs for young girls in 10 Washington public schools, two in Montgomery County, Maryland, and in 19 other cities around the country. The nonprofit is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Avon, American Standard Co., and other companies.

Best Friends provides a holistic approach to raising the self-esteem of these girls and emphasizes abstinence from sex, drugs, and alcohol. In one study done in 1995 only

1.1% of the girls in the Washington program had become pregnant compared to 26% of their public school peers. Similarly, only 4% of the girls had sex before age 15 as contrasted with 63% of their peers.

Michael Medved, the media critic and social commentator, was scheduled to speak at the Best Friends annual recognition ceremony on June 6. In an interview with the Register, Medved lauded the work of the foundation. He decried “safe sex” efforts, saying, “The most popular lie at the moment is that putting on a condom during the sex act constitutes ‘safe sex.’ There are kids dying from that lie. There is no safe sex for a 14-year-old. That's a contradiction in terms.”

Medved also suggested that the terms “lasting love” and “true love,” which celebrate sex within marriage, perhaps capture the issue better than stressing the term “abstinence.” By skillfully using the language, he said, “We are not asking people to give something up, we're asking people to gain something.” These themes are promoted by another private organization, appropriately called True Love Waits, established by the Baptist Sunday School Board in 1993.

The growing number of Americans who support saving sex for marriage may need to wait to see whether the federal government can administer a nationwide program that attracts strong opposition from pro-choice forces. Until then, many will take heart at what some groups and individual families are accomplishing at the grass roots level.

Perhaps Benedictine Father Matthew Habiger, of Human Life International, puts the issue most clearly in perspective for Catholics: “The only programs which are helpful to teenagers are those which propose and explain moral principles. Morality is determined by God. He makes the rules. He has the plan for love, life, marriage, and family. We can only be happy and healthy when we live according to this plan.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Springfield, Virginia.