- The Washington Times - Friday, November 16, 2001

House members yesterday questioned the need for federal funding of abstinence-only education programs, saying that such an approach limits states in how they prevent teen pregnancy.

A major theme in the 1996 welfare-reform law was giving states flexibility to design their own programs, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said at a hearing of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources.

Yet the law's Title V abstinence-education grant program sets specific parameters for how the funds can be spent, Mr. Cardin said.

"Why pigeonhole [those funds] so tightly" when it prevents states from doing innovative programs?, he asked.

Like Mr. Cardin, "I'm concerned about the narrowness of the funding," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, Connecticut Republican.

In the next round of welfare reform, she said, Congress should update some of its approaches and integrate fathers and comprehensive teen pregnancy-prevention into the law.

Good candidates for funding, she added, is family-focused programs like the Greater New Britain Teen Pregnancy Prevention Inc. in Connecticut, which has successfully helped poor Hispanic families prosper while greatly reducing teen pregnancies.

Several witnesses at the hearing led by Rep. Wally Herger, California Republican, defended funding for abstinence-only programs as a preventative approach that is welcomed by many teens, parents, schools and communities.

Abstinence "is the message we believe young girls want to hear," said Elayne Bennett, founder of the Best Friends program, who cited surveys that found that large numbers of teen-age girls want to know "how to say no" to sexual pressure from boyfriends.

Sexual abstinence is a proven deterrent to the flood of sexually transmitted diseases, said Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney, president of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health.

The most popular contraceptives for teen-age girls Depo Provera and the pill may prevent pregnancies but they "provide no protection from STD transmission," he said, adding that among today's sexually active teens, one in four is infected with an STD.

Questioned about the effectiveness of Title V-funded abstinence programs, University of Pennsylvania professor Rebecca A. Maynard said study results of such programs will not be ready for at least a year.

Mrs. Bennett, whose group is not included in the Title V study, said it will soon release a study showing that girls in the Best Friends program are far less sexually active than peers in other D.C. schools.

Sarah S. Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said their research has found that programs that stressed both sex education and youth development "substantially reduced" teen pregnancy and birthrates.

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