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State to push abstinence in schools

Romney to use US grant; other sex-ed will stay

By Scott Helman, The Boston Globe, December 21, 2005

The Romney administration plans to introduce a new abstinence education program in Massachusetts schools beginning next month, the state's most aggressive effort yet to use a controversial method of teaching Bay State teenagers about sex.

The campaign, scheduled to last through June 2007, will only target certain schools and will be aimed especially at teens in black and Hispanic communities, who tend to have higher rates of sexual activity. The proposal by the state Department of Health, quietly posted on its website earlier this month, would add an abstinence education program for 12-to-14-year-olds in an unspecified number of schools.

The campaign would be funded by a $50 million federal abstinence-only grant program, which provides money to states for initiatives that teach abstinence but deliberately do not address condoms and other methods of contraception.

Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom said that the program will be taught in addition to comprehensive sex education programs already in place, and that students will still learn about contraception methods. He said the administration simply wants to spend the federal grant money more effectively.

''No one will disagree that there are other ways to prevent teen pregnancy, but the only method that comes with a foolproof guarantee is abstinence," he said. ''For many years we've been spending money on abstinence education. We've been spending it ineffectively."

Like abortion and gay rights, sex education -- and abstinence specifically -- is an important social issue to conservatives around the country, whom Romney would have to court if he runs for president in 2008. But the administration's decision promises to revive a fight in Massachusetts over how to teach sex education.

Supporters of abstinence-only programs argue that they are an effective way of reducing pregnancies and stemming the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and that other forms of sex education can encourage sexual activity. Opponents of abstinence-only programs counter that teens are going to have sex anyway, and that such programs, by not teaching the merits of condoms and other contraception, increase the risk of pregnancy and disease.

''Of course it puts them at risk," said state Representative Alice K. Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat who sits on the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education. ''It could be misleading. It could be incomplete. And in the end, if the kids are not going to [get comprehensive sex education], then they are ignorant and they are at severe risk of health issues as well as pregnancies."

The Department of Public Health revealed the plan in a proposal submitted to the federal government in late November for the grant program. The school-based approach Romney has outlined for next year represents a significant shift in how Massachusetts will use the money.

Since 1998, the state has received about $700,000 annually, which it has spent on a publicity campaign -- posters, public-service announcements, radio spots -- to encourage teens to abstain from sex.

Under the new proposal, the state would use the money to pay an outside vendor to develop a program to teach teens about abstinence in the schools.

Though public school districts are not required by law to teach sex education, most do so at the middle or high school level and in varying ways. The state Department of Education's curriculum frameworks say that sex education units should include information about various measures to prevent disease or pregnancy. A few small, federally funded abstinence-only programs exist in schools around the state.

Sally Fogerty, associate commissioner of the Department of Public Health, said it will be up to the vendor to select the schools that will participate, but that the state expects that they would be in cities and towns spread around the state. Fogerty said it was too early to say how many schools would be involved and how the program will work.

''The message is that we're hoping . . . teens will make good decisions and will learn about making good decisions, and with that develop self-esteem and feel good about where their life is going," Fogerty said.

The state's 2003 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 63 percent of seniors reported being sexually active by the time they left high school. The same survey found that among all adolescents, 59 percent of Hispanic teenagers reported being sexually active, compared to 56 percent of black teens and 37 percent of white teens.

Critics of the new approach say it reflects a change in Romney's position on abstinence-only education since he answered ''yes" when asked on an April 2002 Planned Parenthood questionnaire: ''Do you support the teaching of responsible, age-appropriate, factually accurate health and sexuality education, including information about both abstinence and contraception, in public schools?"

''Governor Romney said one thing when he was running in Massachusetts, because he knew there was broad support there for comprehensive sex education," said Melissa Kogut, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. ''And now he seems to be using Massachusetts as his launching pad to run a presidential campaign, and he's got a different message."

The debate first flared last year when the Legislature passed a measure directing the state to use the federal grant for classroom abstinence instruction, rather than the publicity campaign. Lawmakers later sent Romney a measure repealing that vote, but Romney vetoed it, sending it back to the Legislature with a message: He wanted the money spent on in-school programs. Lawmakers handily rejected that request.

But through the Department of Public Health, Romney has the authority to decide how the state uses the federal money, and he worked closely with the department on a new grant application directed at a school-based abstinence program. The Legislature could move to restrict how the money is spent, or reject the funding altogether, but it's unclear how much support among lawmakers that would have. Three states -- California, Maine, and Pennsylvania -- don't accept the money, called Title V, according to the US Administration for Children and Families.

Opponents of abstinence-only programs say they have no problem with teaching abstinence -- in fact, many believe it should be the primary message of any sex education program. But they say any program that teaches only abstinence is putting teens at risk.

''The problem here is not the abstinence, it's the only," said Angus McQuilken, director of public relations and governmental affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, a leading provider of comprehensive sex education in the public schools. ''We're doing them a disservice if we deny them medically accurate information about how to protect themselves."

The administration's new classroom approach, according to McQuilken and other critics, is far more worrisome than the publicity campaign, because it will actively promote abstinence at the expense of information about contraception.

The federal grant program began under President Clinton, but the US government has funded abstinence education for more than two decades. President Bush has made it a priority.

Jeff Trimbath, director of abstinence education for the US Administration for Children and Families, said initial results from an ongoing evaluation of the grant program show that the abstinence message was getting through to more teenagers.

''The interim result was pretty positive," he said.

But opponents cite a 2004 congressional report released by US Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, which found that many federally funded abstinence programs provide teenagers with distorted, misleading, and incorrect information about sex, pregnancy, and contraception.

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