The Clinton administration on Friday opened the coffers of a $250-million program designed to teach Americans that engaging in sex before marriage "is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects" and that abstinence from extramarital sex "is the expected standard" of human behavior.
The new initiative, mandated by the sweeping 1996 welfare reform bill and outlined for states by the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday, is expected to spur a nationwide rush to develop courses that teach abstinence.
States are expected to focus their efforts on "those groups which are most likely to bear children out of wedlock," according to the guidelines presented to the states. Based on existing birth data, that focus signals that minority and low-income communities will become primary targets of the new teaching efforts.
California would command the largest slice of the newly available funds. Proposed state programs that meet the strict standards of the abstinence-education initiative could receive as much as $5.7 million in the fiscal year that begins in October.
For the state, which allocated $60 million for family planning programs in fiscal 1996, the new source of funds designed to combat teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancies could prompt a significant shift in spending. To receive the federal funds provided by the welfare bill, a state must put up $3 for every $4 the federal government provides.
"Most welfare reform proposals try to pick up the pieces after an out-of-wedlock birth has occurred," said Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), a congressional sponsor of the program. "It is much more effective to prevent young women from getting pregnant in the first place. And teaching young people to abstain from sexual activity is one of the best ways to accomplish that."
But many sex educators charge there is no evidence that such programs prevent teenagers from having sex. They warn that in an age when most teens have intercourse, abstinence-only programs offer little guidance on how to limit risks and manage sexual relationships responsibly.
"This is a classic example of throwing money at a problem," said Cory Richards, vice president of the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sexual- and reproductive-rights issues.
"It's one thing to throw money at the problem when you have a reasonable indication you have something that works. It's one thing to invest in a pilot program, test the idea out and insist on rigorous evaluation, so if it works, it can be replicated and if not, discarded."
But, added Richards, "it's another thing to take $50 million--which is not petty cash--and throw it at abstinence education when there isn't much indication it's going to work."
The program provides $50 million in federal funds for 1998 and for each of the four succeeding years.
Critics complain that the initiative could prompt a flight by many states from existing programs that teach abstinence as a key part of a more comprehensive sex education curriculum. It could make "abstinence-only" programs, which would not permit discussion of birth control or "safe sex" methods, more attractive investments for states than "abstinence-based" programs that urge teens to delay sex but also teach them how to reduce the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease in the event they do have intercourse.
Critics consider that a dangerous gamble in an era when extramarital sex is in fact the norm among Americans, and when a majority of teens--56% of girls and 73% of boys--have had intercourse by the time they are 18. Given the dramatic rise in the age of Americans' first marriages, the average teen will be sexually active for about eight years before marrying.
Elayne Bennett, the founder of an abstinence-based program called Best Friends, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., disputes the charge that abstinence-only programs are ineffective in delaying the onset of sexual activity and stemming teen pregnancy.
Some of the abstinence-only programs that have led critics to brand them ineffective were little more than rallies exhorting students--many of whom were already sexually active--to "just say no."
"Abstinence does work," Bennett said in an interview. "I know it works, if it is conducted in a sincere, committed manner in which you give the amount of time that's necessary to give the instruction and put in place the support system, which has to be there. If you do that, you will have fewer girls that will be sexually active."
Bennett's program, which includes girls from fifth to ninth grades, calls upon young women to abstain from sex until marriage. But the program asks its participants for an explicit commitment that they will abstain until high school graduation.