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Federal abstinence program likely to have great impact, advocates say

WASHINGTON (BP)–The federal government will award Oct. 1 grants totaling $50 million to states to teach sexual abstinence, an initiative supporters believe will help reverse the tide of teen sexuality.
Congress adopted the abstinence education program as part of the 1996 welfare reform law. For the next five years, $50 million will be awarded to the states annually to provide sexual abstinence education, with the intention of focusing on groups most likely to have children outside marriage.
Such action from the federal government is likely to have a far-reaching impact, say at least some abstinence advocates.
“I think it’s an absolutely vital thing that’s happened,” said Joe McIlhaney, founder and president of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Texas.
“Because of a number of different things, I have been more and more impressed with how much difference leadership makes. I think that what we have seen with this money … is our Congress saying it is a good thing for our young people to be taught” sexual intercourse should be delayed until marriage.
“The encouragement of biblical standards of sexual morality may very well prove to be one of the most positive, important and effective measures which Congress has passed in recent memory,” said Will Dodson of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “This effort gives those of us who believe in Christian values reason for hope and optimism that the serious moral decline in our culture over the last generation can begin to be reversed. This effort is a major step in that direction.”
Dodson added, “Christians who care about the potential of this effort should become involved in monitoring the actions of their state governments as these programs are implemented.”
McIlhaney predicted Congress’ initiative will result in a few years in 70 percent of young people refraining from sex until marriage and in a large decrease in nonmarital pregnancy among teenagers.
Even though it is “not that much money,” there has been “electricity in the air ever since” it became law, he said. “I think what this money is doing is encouraging (programs) like ‘True Love Waits’ (the Baptist Sunday School Board-initiated abstinence emphasis). … It makes it acceptable to talk about” sexual abstinence.
The money is not much when compared to the $203 million committed in the new budget to Title X, the federal government’s comprehensive sexuality program. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America alone will receive $41 million under Title X, according to a report in The Washington Times. Meanwhile, the federal government’s Title XX program, which since 1981 has promoted abstinence and adoption, has been funded at roughly $7 million annually in recent years.
Such favoritism toward organizations providing birth control and condoms for young people did not keep the “safe-sex” advocates from attacking the new abstinence program. Early this year, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) blasted the program and urged states to refuse to take the funding.
By mid-summer, however, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several territories, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, had applied.
Skirmishes also ensued between Congress and the Clinton administration over the guidelines for the program. For instance, congressional supporters wanted the governors to administer the program, while the White House desired for the state health departments to supervise it, congressional sources said. In the end, the White House largely won this battle, with the governors distributing the funds and the State Maternal and Child Health agencies overseeing the application process and administering the program.
Otherwise, abstinence advocates largely expressed satisfaction with the guidelines. Now, they await disclosure of how the states will use the funds. A spokesman for the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, the Department of Health and Human Services agency administering the program at the federal level, declined to comment on the states’ intentions until the grants are announced. Program supporters have heard enough to be concerned, however.
“There seem to be a couple of ways that states are using the money that could potentially be ineffective and possibly go against congressional intent,” said Heide Wood, an aide to Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R.-N.C., the chief sponsor of the abstinence provision. “One is by using a majority or all of the money on media campaigns.”
Such approaches are “very inadequate,” McIlhaney said. Another state, he said, supposedly will use its funds for administrative expenses in its first year. “It’s really almost immoral to take this money and do something like this with it,” he said.
Instead, the money should be used to target groups, especially at-risk youth in families on welfare, for an “intense program,” McIlhaney said. Character and values — such as respect, integrity and delayed gratification — should be taught in these programs from kindergarten to high school, he said. “On that foundation, you teach them they can be abstinent not only from sex, but drugs and other harmful activities,” McIlhaney said.
Despite the reservations, Wood said, “We’re pleased to see that so many states are going to take the money.”
Under the law, states and other recipients must match every $4 in federal funds with $3 in state or local funds. The matching funds, however, may be from private gifts or “in-kind” resources, such as facility space and volunteer time.
Private, already established or newly established abstinence programs may receive funds in their state, but they, like the organizations funded under Title XX, are restricted from promoting religion.
According to the law, “abstinence education” is defined as an educational or motivational program that:
— “Has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
— “Has abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;
— “Teaches that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems;
— “Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human and sexual activity;
— “Teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
— “Teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, parents and society;
— “Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances;
— “Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”
The federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau will award grants based on a formula of the ratio of low-income children in a state to the total of low-income children in all the states. In the first year, the grants will range among the states from a low of about $70,000 for Vermont to nearly $5.8 million for California.
HHS also will award a bonus to as many as five states that show the largest decrease in out-of-wedlock births while also having abortion rates lower than in 1995. The bonus will be $20 million a state if five states qualify and $25 million a state if fewer qualify.