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Monday, December 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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AIDS group seeks rejection of 'abstinence-based' education funds

Seattle Times medical reporter

Washington state's major AIDS advisory board is asking Gov. Gary Locke to reject federal money for educational programs that emphasize abstinence as the only prevention for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Such programs "do not give students complete information that they need to help them make responsible choices about their sexual activity," said Judith Billings, chairwoman of the Governor's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (GACHA), in a letter to Locke. "To deny them a balanced program that offers life-saving knowledge is irresponsible."

The advisory council wrote to Locke this month amid indications of Bush administration support for increasing "abstinence-based" education.

The council believes stricter federal requirements are about to be imposed on the content of those programs, including strong assertions that sex outside of marriage is psychologically and physically harmful and that there are likely "harmful consequences" for children born outside of marriage.

Since 1997, the state has received about $739,000 a year in federal funds for "abstinence-based" education, which involves about 1,300 students statewide in voluntary programs.

The programs generally teach high-school or middle-school students about teen pregnancy, decision-making and communication skills. State law requires that state officials annually apply for the federal grant, which must be matched by about $554,000 in state funds.

A representative of Locke's emphasized that state law would have to be changed to reject the money. The governor would carefully examine any changes in the federal requirements before supporting rejection of the funds, said Victor Colman, a policy analyst for the state Department of Health.

"We would have to do an analysis to see if (accepting the funds) is worthwhile from a public-health standpoint," said Colman.

The Seattle-based Lifelong AIDS Alliance, which advocates for AIDS patients, also plans to urge that the money be turned down. Chuck Kuehn, executive director, said he would urge other AIDS organizations to join in signing the letter.

Programs using the federal grant generally must emphasize that abstinence outside marriage is the "expected standard" for students and the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms or any other form of contraception may not be discussed.

The programs also must teach, or not contradict, other tenets established by legislation that allocated a $50 million fund in 1996: that a monogamous relationship is expected in marriage; that sexual activity outside marriage is likely to be psychologically and physically harmful; that bearing a child out of wedlock is likely to be harmful to the child, parents and society.

The advisory council told the governor in the letter: "Such statements are (about) ideology, not scientifically stated facts."

In addition, the government says, programs should teach how to resist sexual advances, that drugs and alcohol make one vulnerable to such advances and that self-sufficiency is important before engaging in sexual activity.

Schools have used the federal funds without a federal requirement to emphasize every one of the principles. Most, though, do not emphasize them all. GACHA worries the Republican Congress will now require that they all be emphasized.

Billings said the proposed legislation authorizing new funding for the programs contains language requiring that all of the principles be taught. The measure is supported by President Bush, she said.

In Washington state, sex education usually is presented in health classes, which have no restrictions on mentioning condoms or other contraception. The state does not require sex education but does require that all students receive instruction on AIDS, including mention of condoms and abstinence as ways to reduce or eliminate the risk of infection.

About 50 schools and four community-based programs use the federal funds for abstinence-emphasizing programs. Most of the money is used in programs that teach students how to develop media campaigns on abstinence.

The "Teen Aware" program, which involves 50 schools, requires students to conduct research on teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and health, teen sexuality and abstinence. The youths learn skills such as video production, graphic arts and script writing to produce messages about the importance of abstinence.

At North Kitsap High School in Poulsbo, for example, students designed and produced posters on teen pregnancy that have been used in schools across the country. They also produced printed articles and photos on the subject.

The project offers an alternative to the promiscuity widely presented in television shows, movies and other media, said teacher Theresa Aubin Ahrens.

Jakob Lunden, 18, a North Kitsap senior and program participant, said stopping the abstinence program would indicate government officials don't really care about the issue.

"There's nothing more efficient than abstinence. It's 100 percent; it never failed anyone," Lunden said. Preventing AIDS in even one student would save a big part of the federal grant in the cost of care, he said.

GACHA members said in their letter that 60 percent of teens nationwide say they are sexually active by their senior year. It is irresponsible to insist they "just say no," they said.

"Council members are strongly in favor of comprehensive health education which includes abstinence as a choice, but just as strongly unanimously oppose attempted indoctrination to a particular political/moral dogma that attempts to pass as good public education," the members said.

They told the governor that the legislation's insistence on sex only in marriage ignores the needs of gays and lesbians and offers "only shame and fear" to the sexually abused and those living in nontraditional households.

While it may be hard to refuse federal funds when the budget is tight, the members said, providing the matching state dollars "to present an inadequate, biased program to our young people does not appear to be a wise choice."

Warren King: 206-464-2247 or seattletimes.com

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