State governments throughout the country are embroiled in a bitter controversy over how to spend - or even whether to spend - $250 million authorized by Congress to persuade teenagers not to have sex.
Birth control groups such as Planned Parenthood have denounced the federal grant program as a dangerous waste of time and have asked states not to take the money. Conservative activists, meanwhile, have accused some states of planning to spend the funds in ways that don’t conform to the program’s goals.
“Because of the highly contentious nature of the debate, there are some people in my office who would not touch this program with a 10-foot pole,” said Nira Bonner, director of children’s health at the Maryland Department of Health.
Congress approved the abstinence-education funding last year. The legislation does not specify what form the lessons should take. But it says that the only state programs qualifying for the federal money will be those whose “exclusive purpose” is to teach teenagers “the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.”
Health officials in several states say the language has put them in a bind. If they launch efforts to teach abstinence, they risk offending birth control groups they have worked with for years. But if they reject the federal grants, they can be accused of missing an opportunity to help children.
States have until Tuesday to apply for the funds. So far, 47 states and the District of Columbia have said they will take the money, one state has indicated it will not, and another is leaning that way. But their plans for spending the money vary widely.
Daniel Daley, public policy director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a pro-sex-education group based in New York, called the federal program the broadest attack ever on “the provision of comprehensive sexuality education to young people in the United States.”
Groups such as SIECUS and Planned Parenthood cite studies that show reduction of pregnancy and disease when young people are given birth control information, and little or no effect when that information is denied them. But some groups say abstinence education has never been given a fair test.
There is so much money involved in the new program that most state officials say they would be severely criticized if they turned it down.
Any state that wants to use the abstinence education money must put up $3 in state funds for every $4 in federal money.
Connecticut officials have said they will not seek the federal grant because they cannot afford the matching expense. A Wyoming state task force has recommended twice that the abstinence money be rejected, in part because of the concern over the ban on birth control information, but Republican Gov. Jim Geringer has not said whether he will accept the recommendation.
Many state health officials have taken the position of Bonner, the author of Maryland’s proposal, who supports giving birth control information but believes that the abstinence message has not been emphasized as much as it should be.
She said she sees her plan as a reasonable compromise: letting birth control be discussed in the regular school sex education classes and using the federal money for afterschool classes and activities.
One of the most likely times of day for teenage sex, Bonner said, is from 3 to 6 p.m., when there is little or no adult supervision. “We want to keep kids busy and integrate abstinence messages throughout these programs,” she said.
Peter Brandt, public policy representative of Focus on the Family, a conservative Colorado-based group active in Virginia, was skeptical. “I would guess we have some occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases between 10 p.m. and midnight,” he said.