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Abstinence Groups try to Maintain Funds

Abstinence-only educators say there's more to their programs than the 'just say no' mantra of the anti-drug movement.
( [email protected] ) Apr 11, 2007 01:00 PM EDT

WASHINGTON - Abstinence-only educators say there's more to their programs than the "just say no" mantra of the anti-drug movement.

But that's just what they're saying to Democrats looking to curtail a program that grew 17-fold — from $10 million in 1997 to $176 million this year — when the Republicans controlled Congress.

Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation promoting comprehensive sex education instead of abstinence-only curriculum. They want to send money to schools that stress abstinence while also instructing students about the health benefits and side effects of contraceptives.

The abstinence groups aren't planning on losing any of their federal funding without a fight. They've opened their own trade association near the Capitol.

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said the group's formation is not a response to Democrats taking control of Congress.

"It really has nothing to do at all with any current political climate, just the evolution of the field of abstinence education," she said.

Huber acknowledges, though, that the opening does occur at an important time.

"We recognize there's been a change inside the beltway. But that doesn't mean there's a change across America," Huber said.

Besides opening their own trade association, abstinence educators hired a public relations firm with a long list of Republican and conservative clients.

"They've had smooth sailing for seven years," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, an organization that promotes sex ed programs. "Their hiring of this firm shows that they know the honeymoon with Congress is over."

The abstinence association will make its case to lawmakers and the public about a program that Huber said is often misunderstood and mischaracterized.

"We're not talking about just avoiding pregnancy or just avoiding teen birth. We're talking about healthy relationship building. We're talking about skills in healthy decision making, goal setting and providing information on (sexually transmitted diseases."

Currently, Congress uses three different programs to fund abstinence education. The largest of those programs has gone from $20 million to $113 million in seven years. President Bush is requesting $141 million next year.

The second largest pot of money, $50 million, goes through the states, which match that funding with $3 for every $4 they get from the federal government. The programs teach that sex outside of marriage is likely to be psychologically and physically harmful.

The program, known as Title V, is set to expire this year, setting the stage for a potential showdown this summer over the program's future direction and funding levels.

Wade Horn, who oversaw the two largest abstinence education programs until he resigned last week, predicted Congress will give states more flexibility in determining how Title V money is spent.

But he doesn't believe Congress will make major funding cuts.

"I think it's going to evolve, but I don't think it's going to go away," he said. "I've seen some bills introduced by Democrats that suggest they want a separate fund dedicated to comprehensive sex education, but my sense is that it won't be at the expense of abstinence education. I think it's a matter of both, not one or the other."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (news, bio, voting record), D-N.J., sponsored the legislation cited by Horn. He said he doesn't believe abstinence education is working. His goal is to make both types of programs available, and he believes schools will gradually shift their focus to the comprehensive sex education programs.

Teen birth rates have been on the decline since 1991. The reasons can be partially explained through the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For youth in grades 9 through 12, the percentage of youth reporting ever having sexual intercourse fell from 54.1 percent in 1991 to 46.8 percent in 2005.

During that same time frame, condom use during the last sexual intercourse increased from 46.2 percent to 62.8 percent. However, the use of a birth control pill before last sexual intercourse dropped from 20.8 percent to 17.6 percent.