State shuns sex-ed grants based only on abstinence

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At a time when skyrocketing gas prices are sending food prices through the roof and driving the housing market into the ground, why would Pennsylvania refuse more than $5.8 million in federal grants?

Since 2003, the state has turned down millions of dollars in grants for abstinence-only sexual education, claiming the rules were overly restrictive on a program that failed to produce results. In fact, Pennsylvania is one of 22 states that don't participate in the $50 million annual federal program that aims to reform sexual education to reduce teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Evaluations by the Pennsylvania Department of Health showed "that [abstinence] programs are largely ineffective in reducing sexual onset and in promoting attitudes and skills consisting in sexual abstinence," said Phyllis Welborn from the Bureau of Family Health and state health department.

But Brenda Newport, executive director of the Women's Care Center in Erie, said she is astounded that Pennsylvania continues to refuse millions of dollars despite its alarming teen pregnancy statistics, which were 40.7 teen pregnancies for every 1,000 females ages 15-19 in 2005, down from 42.7 teen pregnancies in 2003.

"There isn't a contraceptive that is foolproof. Abstinence-only helps teenagers with life skills: self-control and managing peer pressure."

The federal program, known as Title V, was created in 1996 as part of welfare reform. Participating states must provide $3 for every $4 of federal funding.

Under the grant's restrictions, teachers cannot mention birth control or condoms, except to point out that they fail. They must teach that anything but abstinence has psychological, social, and physical harm, and that heterosexual marriage is the standard, to the exclusion of households with single parents and homosexual couples.

Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Pennsylvania NOW, a grassroots nonprofit that works with other chapters of the National Organization for Women to bring equal rights for all women, believes that Title V actually causes more pregnancies. "Teenagers who go through abstinence-only programs have no understanding of HIV and AIDs, and they're just as likely to have intercourse."

The government continues to spend more money on abstinence-only programs that federally funded studies show are ineffective than on programs that have delivered results, said Joe Fay, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Even federal evaluations of programs most likely to demonstrate positive effects failed to show improvements in teens' behavior,

"It's almost unheard of for a state to turn down money, but that's a sign of how unpopular these measures are," he said, citing public opinion polls in which 85 percent of parents support sexual education with abstinence and contraception.

Seventeen states have explicitly laid out their reasons for refusing Title V money. Pennsylvania has not given that pitch, perhaps to avoid offending its more conservative constituents.

Pennsylvania's approach favors local control of programs, supporting the philosophy that teachers on the ground know the specific issues their students and neighborhoods are up against. Schools choose their curriculums and how they are taught, usually picking variations on comprehensive sexual education. This alternative often covers contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases while stressing abstinence.

Kelly Holland from the Pennsylvania Department of Health said that more people are moving toward health adolescence programs. They "provide more information not just for abstinence, but for healthcare."

Abstinence-only education is "a tough sell these days. But I'm sure a certain segment of students would respond to reinforcement to what they get at home," said Tim Broderick from People for Life Inc., which addresses sexuality as a public policy issue. "We try not to exaggerate, to be objective and factual."

The Women's Care Center teaches abstinence-only education with several thousand dollars of federal money outside of Title V through weight-training, unmasking sexual con games and literature.

"We are talking about love relationships and what we all desire," said Ms. Newport. "The sex approach is a part of it, but it's about what a love relationship is about. We help people look at what they want for their lives."

Parents often assume that today's teenagers are the same as the teenagers that they grew up with, or that their kids are getting a good education in school and do not need additional information.

Some believe parents should take the initiative. "They are the best educators, but often they don't realize how much influence they have over their children. They need to stop thinking that the kids are going to go out and do it anyway," said Keri Mouir, executive director of Choices Pregnancy Center in Coraopolis, which provides counseling and education in pregnancy, sex education, STDs and other health issues. "I ask where kids get their information and who they want to get it from, and they overwhelmingly say from parents."

Although funding is often limited, Pennsylvania has a large network of teen pregnancy prevention programs in abstinence-only and comprehensive sexual education.

Pennsylvania Coalition to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, for example, has started a teacher-training program called the Pennsylvania Learning Academy for Sex Education, said Mr. Fay. "Teachers can get Penn State credits. We'll have one-day classes on how to teach sex ed. These programs have become an institution and get refunded."

The Choices Pregnancy Center, which has used no federal funding, teaches comprehensive sexual education with pre- and post- questionnaires that show overwhelmingly positive results, Ms. Mouir said. The Center looks at the emotional and physical consequences for teenagers who raise kids outside of marriage. The results show that students do gain knowledge, and that students often have misconceptions such as the belief that condoms work 100 percent of the time.

Mr. Fay believes that money is spent better without Title V. "If you're a taxpayer, you realize this is a major waste of taxpayer money."


Alexa Chu can be reached at at 412-263-1889 or achu@post-gazette.com .


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