- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

For years, condoms have reigned supreme in preventing AIDS, but at least one major AIDS group has decided to embrace the abstinence-only approach as well. Does this signal a new acceptance of abstinence until marriage? Only time will tell, HIV/AIDS watchers say.

The potentially pivotal moment came in October, when the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW) won a $91,690 federal grant to develop an abstinence-only education program for teens.

Protests came immediately because the ARCW, like other AIDS-prevention groups, had a long history of promoting safer-sex techniques and openly rejecting the abstinence-only approach.

"We DO NOT present abstinence-only programs," the ARCW declared on its Web site until late last year.

After the ARCW won the abstinence grant, Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and demanded an explanation.

This grant program "has specific purposes that need to be followed. This is upsetting," wrote Mr. Souder, chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources.

Upon further investigation, however, the ARCW was shown to have merited the funding.

The "safer-sex message is far from 100 percent effective," the ARCW said in its 2001 grant application materials. "ARCW believes an abstinence-only prevention format is ideal for many youth venues, especially faith-based, community-based or sport-related youth organizations." The ARCW is estimated to be the nation's sixth-largest AIDS-prevention group.

Mr. Souder and his subcommittee appeared to be mollified. "We are encouraged that nontraditional abstinence groups are now recognizing and embracing abstinence as a necessary strategy towards eliminating the plague of HIV/AIDS, other STDs and unwanted pregnancy," a subcommittee aide said.

Mike Gifford, deputy executive director of the ARCW, said the group was pleased to win a federal grant to plan an abstinence program but that members were disappointed they didn't win a second federal grant to implement it. "We will continue to pursue funding from other sources," he said.

Other evidence shows AIDS groups are warming to at least part of the abstinence message.

"Abstinence education only becomes problematic when its advocates start attaching 'only' to the concept and tying the whole idea to marriage," executive editor Chris Crain wrote in an April editorial in the Washington Blade, a weekly newspaper for homosexuals.

"Thus far, our advocacy groups including those aimed specifically at gay and AIDS health issues and protecting gay youth have largely stayed out of the debate ," Mr. Crain wrote. "But that's a terrible mistake. Their influence is needed in shaping abstinence education so that 'marriage' isn't the only green light for sex. A committed relationship, or at least adulthood, would seem just as reasonable."

Shepherd Smith, president of the Institute for Youth Development, said the Blade editorial "isn't the only case" where he has seen unexpected arguments for abstinence.

"People have every right to change their outlook and determine that some other approach is better," Mr. Smith said. "And I think it is a very positive development that those who were vocal critics of abstinence are now seeking to promote abstinence."

But evidence also shows that AIDS and civil liberties groups are as critical of abstinence-only education as ever.

Teaching people that they should wait until marriage to have sex "is a noble ideal," Dorothy Mann, board member of the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families, told the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS last month.

"But most people aren't marrying at 21 anymore," she said. "Should we expect 30-year-old single people to abstain?" And what about homosexuals, who can never marry, she said, urging council members to ask the Bush administration to open federal abstinence grants to programs that also teach about contraceptives.

Similarly, groups such as Advocates for Youth and the AIDS Policy Research Center at the University of California at San Francisco are advising Congress to change the welfare-reform law's $50-million-a-year Title V "abstinence-only" grant to "abstinence-plus," which would include instruction about birth control and other safer-sex techniques.

Last month, the Senate Finance Committee attempted to appease both sides by voting to keep the "abstinence-only" program as it is, plus create a $50-million-a-year "abstinence-first" grant program that would allow safer-sex education.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed the nation's first challenge of the Title V-funded abstinence program, accusing Louisiana of allowing the use of funds to promote religion.

In a court hearing in June, ACLU lawyers said almost a third of 46 community-based grantees included religious messages in their abstinence programs and that Louisiana should be blocked from giving funds to those groups.

Louisiana officials called the lawsuit baseless because grantees who had stepped over the line already had been stripped of their funding and other mistakes had been remedied.

These kinds of attacks on abstinence-only education are all too familiar, said Leslee Unruh, founder and president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls, S.D.

"I'm still a little suspect," she said when asked if the ARCW grant was a sign AIDS groups were warming up to the abstinence-only approach. "I believe they have gotten in there to get the dollars, and what they think is abstinence is not abstinence."

Still, Mrs. Unruh has seen an attitudinal shift about abstinence-only programs. "I've been talking with people in departments of health all around the country, and they're saying, 'Well I've got to tell you that we didn't think this abstinence until marriage would work, but now we have some positive things to say about it,'" she said.

Meanwhile, Uganda and Zambia are cited as examples that abstinence-only education can work in HIV prevention.

Uganda's ABC program, which stands for "abstain, be faithful or wear a condom," has emphasized abstaining from sex and restricting sex to one partner, Arthur Allen wrote in the May 27 issue of the New Republic.

A Harvard School of Public Health study of Ugandan pregnant women has found that 6.2 percent tested positive for HIV in 2001, compared with 21.2 percent in 1991. The study also found that 2.5 percent of women had multiple sexual partners, down from 18 percent in 1989.

In Zambia, which has a similar media campaign, more young people are delaying sex, abstaining from sex or using condoms, officials said last week at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona.

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