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Cover Story: Abstinence-Only Education Continues to Flourish

By Priscilla Pardini

In 1996 a little-publicized and neverdebated provision of the welfare reform law threw the full weight of the federal government behind abstinence-only sex education when $50 million a year for five years became available to states agreeing to teach abstinence. The federal appropriation ballooned to $437.5 million when combined with matching state funds. Five years later, Congress appropriated $20 million more a year (increased to $40 million in 2002) for abstinence-only programs run by community- based programs. (Another $12 million a year in Adolescent Family Life Act funds, had been earmarked for abstinence-only programs since 1997.)

In his 2003 budget, President Bush proposed increasing total federal funding for abstinence-only programs - currently at $102 million a year - to $135 million a year, a figure he said equaled what the federal government spends on family planning services for teenagers. Funding at that level is not likely to be passed by Congress. But a resolution passed by the both the Senate and the House of Representatives on Oct. 16 continued $52 million in funding until Nov. 22. A separate, earlier resolution continued an additional $50 million in funding through the end of the year.

"Beyond that," said William Smith, SIECUS' director of public policy, "It's anyone's guess just how much more money will be spent on these unproven and potentially harmful programs. At best, given the current political climate, we hope to hold the line and have these programs flat-funded at $102 million."

Even given that best-case scenario, the effect of the federal funding on sexuality education to date has been enormous. "All that money is giving abstinence-only programs credibility they don't deserve," said Martha Kempner, SIECUS' associate director. "It looks like the federal government's stamp of approval. People think that if the government is putting money behind it, it must be the right thing to do."

In fact, there is no federal policy on what public schools should be teaching when it comes to sexuality education, the result of the longstanding U.S. tradition of "local control" over schools. Yet, Kempner said it's hard for local school districts, particularly those strapped for cash, to resist abstinenceonly programs. She likened the scenario to "dangling a carrot" in front of a hungry rabbit. "The fact that it's fully funded makes it appealing," she said. "The fact that it's federal funding gives it credibility."

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