Abstinence Can't Wait

While other programs got cut, conservatives tried to give abstinence-only education more money.

When the Legislature whips out the scissors and starts snipping, some nonessential programs inevitably end up on the cutting room floor, like suicide prevention, which was supported by $126,000 from the state general fund.

At the same time, other nonessential programs rise to the top of the pile, and somehow, the Legislature is able to scrounge enough funds--to not only sustain them, but to give them a significant boost.

Abstinence Only Education would be one of these. Hailed by Republican leadership as a nationally recognized success and condemned by many Democrats as a thinly veiled attempt to force good ol' Christian morals on other people's children, the Abstinence Only Education program is a statewide effort to combat teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The program offers abstinence as the cure-all, with little mention of contraception, birth control or masturbation.

The program would have collected a bonus $330,000 in state funds in the coming fiscal year if Gov. Janet Napolitano hadn't nixed it with a line-item veto earlier this week.

For Rep. Linda Lopez, a Democrat from District 29 who voted against the budget, the appropriation was a waste of precious resources on a useless program.

"It really irritates me that we can find $330,000 for Abstinence Only Education in the state of Arizona," Lopez said, "when you consider how much focus they've put on it (in the last five years), and yet, we're still among the (worst) in the nation as far as dropout and teen birth rates. We can spend money on Abstinence Only, but not on elderly and disabled people in state institutions who only get $50 a month for living expenses like deodorant, toothpaste and shampoo."

The abstinence funding even irked some Republicans, such as District 3 Sen. Linda Binder--who recently angered many within her party by going on a honeymoon instead of sticking around to vote on their right-wing-driven budget.

"I did go ballistic about spending all this money on abstinence-only programs while we were cutting domestic violence-(prevention), substance-abuse and HIV-(prevention) funding," she said. "So disingenuous! It was the straw that broke the camel's back."

On the other side of the fence, there's Sen. Mark Anderson, a Republican from District 18 who bulldozed the way for Abstinence Only funding in 1997. He said Democrats were misreading the budget. Sure, lawmakers were sending $330,000 in state revenue towards the program, but that's because this fiscal year, they were forced to cut the program in half.

Anderson expressed disappointment in Napolitano's line-item veto.

"It is sad that the governor wants to deny young teenagers access to this type of education, which prevents teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and emotional scars," he said.

The program was born in 1998 and has since drawn $4 million dollars a year from a combination of state and federal sources. This year, $2 million in funding from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families appropriation has vanished. In order to collect $1.2 million from another federal grant, the state had to come up with about $800,000. To do this, Anderson said, they had to add $330,000 to their $500,000 stake in the program.

Abstinence Education opponent Patti Caldwell, of Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona, cited an Arizona Department of Health Services report from 2001 that showed the program distributes "medically" misleading materials.

For example, DHS evaluators asked teens how they felt about statements such as: "Condoms are so ineffective it is not worth using them," and, "If someone is planning to be abstinent, he or she doesn't need to know about other kinds of birth control."

The report stated: "On the post-test, students showed a small but significant average increase in the endorsement of these items."

Anderson pointed out that program was singled out recently by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as one of the better programs in the country. President Bush himself has made Abstinence Only a priority, Anderson said.

In Arizona in 2001, 72 out of 1000 teenage girls were pregnant--a 30 percent decrease in the statewide rate since it peaked in 1994. Since 1998, 75,000 adolescents and adults have gone through the program. DHS says the teenage STD rate is on the rise; however, a consolidated statistic was unavailable.

The new Abstinence money would have come from the state lottery fund, where the Legislature's budget proposal cut $200,000 that would be used to help compulsive gamblers. At the same time, the Legislature was also allocating another $700,000 for the lottery to spend on advertising and related expenditures.

Both Lopez and Planned Parenthood take issue with implied message of Abstinence Only.

"Some of the parameters of the (Abstinence Only) programs includes ... that the only time sex activity is appropriate is within the confines (of marriage)," Caldwell said. "That's certainly one point of view, but not the point of view held by a large majority of people in America."

Lopez added, "What if you don't want to get married? What if marriage is not for you? Why do we have to tell people what to do with their lives?"

The program is administrated by the DHS, which gets the message out through a private advertising firm, Cooley Advertisement of Phoenix, which has created TV and radio spots, billboards, brochures, urban murals and the Sexcanwait.com Web site. The contract expires June 30.

Lopez would like to see the state use a program that combats teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases using a larger arsenal, including education on various means of birth control and STD prevention. Such a program also would help teens already having sex, which the current program excludes.

"If we really wanted to do something, we should put in some program to give kids the resources to make good decisions, not just 'Just say no,'" Lopez said.

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