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Bush Budget Fuels Debate Over Sex Ed

Safe-sex educators are rankled by President Bush’s proposal to increase abstinence instruction funding next year, but proponents of the just-say-no approach argue teens will get a fighting chance against unwed pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases and for healthy future relationships.

“(Abstinence education) tells teens they have a choice,” said Jennifer Marshall, family issues director for the Heritage Foundation (search). “And it will lead to better outcomes, economically and emotionally. The more they delay sex the better they will be for the rest of their lives.”

Proponents of comprehensive sex education say telling teens to wait on intercourse is fine, but they also need straight talk about how to protect themselves from disease and unwanted pregnancy when they don't decide to wait. Safe-sex educators contend that abstinence-only programs drag schools and community outreach programs back to the dark ages by covering up frank sex talk with an unrealistic drumbeat about “waiting for marriage.”

“It’s not what the public wants,” said Michael McGee of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (search), which has received millions in federal money over the years for family planning services that include community-based programs for teens.

“Not one of these (abstinence) programs have been proven effective,” he said.

Contraceptive promotion and family planning programs receive an estimated $2.2 billion each year from the federal government. Abstinence advocates say by doubling the current spending on abstinence-only programs, funding will only reach $270 million in 2005.

“It’s a good step toward equalizing the funding,” said Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council (search).

“I wish the numbers were reversed,” said Peter LaBarbera, director of the Illinois Family Institute (search). “We would love it if Planned Parenthood weren’t subsidized at all.”

A study released Feb. 24 by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 15- to 19-year-old sexually-active teens accounted for nearly half of the 18 million new cases of STDs in 2000, and that nearly one out of every two sexually-active teens can expect to get some form of STD by the age of 25.

The answer to this dilemma? According to the 14 participating physicians in the study, staying away from sex. 

At the same time, the Alan Guttmacher Institute (search) has released a report showing that teen pregnancy and abortion rates have dropped steadily for more than a decade. While statistic show that about half of high school-age teens are having sex, the institute's analysts concluded that the decline in pregnancy between 1988 and 1995 was only 25 percent due to decreased sexual activity and 75 percent attributable to more effective contraceptive practice.

That has safe-sex advocates arguing that any attempt to teach abstinence only will leave teens uneducated and unprotected.

“It’s not the abstinence that anyone has issue with,” said Adrienne Verrilli, a spokeswoman for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (search). "It’s denying kids critical life-saving information and access to contraceptives and health care.”

But Alma Golden, assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, said that type of rhetoric only distracts from the issue.

As a former practicing pediatrician and public health coordinator for schools, Golden said abstinence funding goes to a variety of places and programs are designed to address the needs of each locality that receives it. For instance, funding might be used to provide resources for an entire curriculum or to bring in speakers, to host seminars by outside groups or to provide programs at the local clinic.

Typically, Golden said, a good program would not neglect the students who are already sexually active, and might need to seek help, but it concentrates on giving students healthy options to what teachers and physicians see as a serious problem with early sexual activity.

“When I look at the heart of these abstinence educators, they are not a bunch of prudish women who want to beat people with Bibles, they are people like myself who want to cry when you have a 15-year-old mom whose boyfriend has already gotten another girl pregnant,” she said. “What we say is we don’t want you to get involved in these unhealthy relationships, we want to give you alternatives.”

Marshall said that for every dollar spent on abstinence programs, $4.50 is spent on the safe-sex message. She said it is time the federal government levels the playing field.

“[Teens] are getting plenty of messages from MTV to the biology class about contraceptives and so-called safe sex,” she said. “What they are not getting is a message of higher expectations, and that’s the message the president gave in his State of the Union speech, and that’s the message ... parents want to give and that’s not what teens are getting.”

But Verrilli, whose organization received $500,000 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) as part of a current five-year cooperative agreement for school health projects, said the attention on the funding for safe-sex programs is being emphasized by conservative groups who are exaggerating the funding in order to justify squeezing safe-sex programs out altogether.

“It’s very misleading and it does a great disservice to the discussion,” she said, pointing out that much of the billions that go to contraceptive and family planning services each year go to poor women over 25, not necessarily teens in schools.

McGee added that Bush is just plain wrong and any attempt to "silence" the discussion with teens about unsafe sexual activity and replace it with abstinence programs will only lead to greater rates of STDs.

“President Bush has done a good many things we feel have been harmful to the health and well-being of American people,” said McGee. “We are active in asking Congress to look at this funding stream and to mitigate the harmful effect on children.”