U.S. funds sex education with a focus on abstinence $250 million initiative criticized as unrealistic

March 02, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration opened the coffers Friday of a $250 million program designed to teach Americans that engaging in sex before marriage "is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects" and that abstinence from extramarital sex "is the expected standard" of human behavior.

The initiative, required by the 1996 welfare reform bill and outlined for states by the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday, is expected to spur a nationwide rush to develop courses that teach abstinence.

States are expected to focus their efforts on "those groups which are most likely to bear children out of wedlock," according to the guidelines presented to the states. Based on existing birth data, that focus signals that minority and low-income communities will become primary targets of the new teaching efforts.

"Most welfare reform proposals try to pick up the pieces after an out-of-wedlock birth has occurred," said Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a North Carolina Republican who is a congressional sponsor of the program.

"It is much more effective to prevent young women from getting pregnant in the first place. And teaching young people to abstain from sexual activity is one of the best ways to accomplish that."

Many sex educators say there is no evidence that such programs prevent teens from having sex.

"This is a classic example of throwing money at a problem," said Cory Richards, vice president of the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive rights issues.

"It's one thing to throw money at the problem when you have a reasonable indication you have something that works, [but] it's another thing to take $50 million -- which is not petty cash -- and throw it at abstinence education when there isn't much indication it's going to work."

The program provides $50 million in federal funds for 1998 and for each of the next four years.

Critics complain that the initiative could prompt a flight by many states from existing programs that teach abstinence as a key part of a more comprehensive sex-education curriculum.

It could make "abstinence-only" programs, which would not permit discussion of birth control or "safe sex" methods, more attractive investments for states than "abstinence-based" programs that urge teens to delay sex but also teach them how to reduce the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease in the event they have intercourse.

Critics consider that a dangerous gamble in an era when a majority of teens -- 56 percent of women and 73 percent of men -- have had intercourse by the time they are 18.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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