Abstinence funds debate heats up on Senate panel

A debate about the strict definition of a $50 million-a-year abstinence education grant program is expected tomorrow when a Senate panel convenes to discuss the 1996 welfare law.

Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is expected to offer an amendment that would allow states to use their Title V abstinence education funds “how they see fit,” says one sex education advocate.

At least one Republican on the panel is expected to support Mr. Baucus.

Others on the committee, however, including chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, are seen as strong supporters of the Title V program, including its strict eight-point definition that says funds must be used only to promote premarital sexual abstinence.

Abstinence education supporters say there is ample evidence their approach works.

“Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way of ensuring that someone does not become pregnant out of wedlock or get someone pregnant out of wedlock or contract sexually transmitted diseases. I don’t think we need any studies [to prove that],” Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services, said last week at a Capitol Hill “Abstinence Day” event sponsored by the National Abstinence Clearinghouse and Focus on the Family.

The challenge for abstinence educators and policy-makers is not to defend the idea that abstinence works, but to “find the most effective strategies for helping the maximum [number of] young people to make their choice,” he told congressional staff members and teenage abstinence supporters who gathered at the Capitol Hill Club.

Teenagers need the abstinence message more than ever because “if they just consume popular culture, they don’t get this message very much,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, who also attended the gathering.

Proponents of sex education say there is scant evidence that abstinence education works and states — which must match $3 of $4 in federal abstinence funding — should have more flexibility in choosing their sex education programs.

For instance, Advocates for Youth last fall released a study on 10 state evaluations of their Title V abstinence funds. States spent the funds on activities such as abstinence classes, health fairs, peer education, parental outreach and media campaigns.

Four of the 10 states reported increases in the number of teens who viewed abstinence as a positive thing, but none of the states had evidence that more teens abstained from premarital sex, Advocates for Youth leaders said.

Last week, the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy held a “best practices” sex education conference that highlighted the Advocates for Youth’s “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” campaign.

The campaign is based on Europe’s forthright style of sex education and confidential health services for teens.

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