washingtonpost.com
Abstinence Programs Face Rejection
More States Opt to Turn Down the Federal Money Attached to That Kind of Sex Ed

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

The number of states refusing federal money for "abstinence-only" sex education programs jumped sharply in the past year as evidence mounted that the approach is ineffective.

At least 14 states have either notified the federal government that they will no longer be requesting the funds or are not expected to apply, forgoing more than $15 million of the $50 million available, officials said. Virginia was the most recent state to opt out.

Two other states -- Ohio and Washington -- have applied but stipulated they would use the money for comprehensive sex education, effectively making themselves ineligible, federal officials said. While Maryland and the District are planning to continue applying for the money, other states are considering withdrawing as well.

Until this year, only four states had passed up the funding.

"We're concerned about this," said Stan Koutstaal of the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the program. "My greatest concern about states dropping out is that these are valuable services and programs. It's the youths in these states who are missing out."

The number of states spurning the money has grown even as Congress considers boosting overall funding for abstinence-only education to $204 million, with most of it going directly to community organizations.

The trend has triggered intense lobbying of state legislators and governors around the country. Supporters of the programs are scrambling to reverse the decisions, while opponents are pressuring more states to join the trend.

"This wave of states rejecting the money is a bellwether," said William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a Washington-based advocacy and education group that opposes abstinence-only programs. "It's a canary in the coal mine of what's to come."

"We hope that it sends a message to the politicians in Washington that this program needs to change, and states need to be able to craft a program that is the best fit for their young people and that is not a dictated by Washington ideologues," Smith said.

Smith and other critics said they hope that if enough states drop out, Congress will redirect the funding to comprehensive sex education programs that include teaching about the use of condoms and other contraceptives.

"I think this could be the straw that breaks the camel's back in terms of continued funding of these programs," said John Wagoner of Advocates for Youth, another Washington advocacy group. "How can they ignore so many states slapping a return-to-sender label on this funding?"

But supporters said they plan to fight for the programs state by state.

"We're talking about the health of millions of youth across the United States," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association. "We know abstinence education offers the best for them. Now is the time to put more emphasis on that message, not less."

Huber disputed criticism that the programs are ineffective or overly restrictive.

"Our critics would have governors believe that these programs are just somebody standing in front of the class wagging a finger and saying, 'No. No. No. Don't have sex.' That's not what these classes entail," Huber said. "They are holistic. They include relationship-building skills and medically accurate discussions of sexually transmitted diseases and contraception."

Congress is considering boosting the $176 million in annual funding for abstinence programs by $28 million. State governments can apply for portions of a $50 million fund, which they use for a variety of purposes, including school classes, community groups, state and local health departments and media campaigns. But the money is restricted to efforts focused on promoting abstinence.

The jump in states opting out follows a series of reports questioning the effectiveness of the approach, including one commissioned by Congress that was released earlier this year. In addition, federal health officials reported last week that a 14-year drop in teenage pregnancy rates appeared to have reversed.

"This abstinence-only program is just not getting the job done," said Cecile Richards of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "This is a ideologically based program that doesn't have any support in science."

But Koutstaal, the federal official, took issue with critics who blame abstinence programs for the increase in teen births, noting that rates have continued to decline for 10-to-14-year-olds -- the ages typically targeted by the programs.

"I think it's awfully hard to blame abstinence education for the increase in birth rates," he said.

The program was started as part of the 1996 welfare reform. California, however, dropped out in 2000, forgoing more than $7 million it was eligible to receive, and Maine opted out in 2005, giving up $161,000. Most states, however, did participate. New Jersey decided to opt out last year, rejecting more than $900,000 in funding, and others followed.

"The governor has often stated that abstinence-only education does not show any results," said Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who announced plans to give up the funding last month. "It doesn't work. He's a firm believer in more comprehensive sex education."

Colorado also decided this fall not to seek about $450,000 that it is eligible to receive.

"Why would we spend tax dollars on something that doesn't work?" asked Ned Calonge of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. "That doesn't make sense to me. Philosophically, I am opposed to spending government dollars on something that's ineffective. That's just irresponsible."

The reasons given for passing up the federal money vary from state to state. Some governors publicly repudiated the programs. Others quietly let their applications lapse or blamed tight budgets that made it impossible to meet the requirement to provide matching state funds. Still others are asking for more flexibility.

"The governor supports abstinence education," Keith Daily, a spokesman for Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D). "What he does not support is abstinence- only education. We are asking to put the money toward abstinence in the context of a comprehensive age-appropriate curriculum."

Most of the battles on the state level are being fought by local affiliates supported by national groups. In Illinois, opponents are planning to launch a campaign next month involving more than 100 state groups to try to sway the governor and state legislature to forgo about $1.8 million in funding.

"These programs are dangerous," said Jonathan Stacks of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health. "We're trying to get people across the state to raise their voice on this issue. I think once those voices are heard, the legislature and the governor won't have any choice but to back the will of the voters."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company