States Abstain From Federal Sex Ed Money

Maine has stepped out of the collection line of states getting federal money to help subsidize sex education, joining California and Pennsylvania in saying, "No, thanks."

Citing a potential conflict with a 2002 state law that mandates teaching teenagers everything from self-restraint to contraception, Maine declined about $160,000 in federal money for fiscal 2006.

Maine would have had to pitch in about $120,000 had it accepted the federal money, and it would have had to focus sex education programs financed by the money on abstinence exclusively.

The state also refused to allow Heritage of Maine, a nonprofit, abstinence-education group, to put on its programs in Maine public schools. Heritage's programs, which are financed with a three-year, $1.5 million federal grant, are instead being conducted only in private schools.

Much of the debate over abstinence-only programs centers on their effectiveness or lack thereof. Groups opposed to the federal programs often cite a December 2004 study by the staff of U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that found that 11 of 13 federally funded abstinence programs contained medically inaccurate information.

California has never accepted the federal money, which is provided under the 1996 welfare reform law, and Pennsylvania first turned it down in 2004. Officials from both states cited the programs' ineffectiveness in their decisions.

Maine's decision to just say no to the just say no-ers ended seven years of involvement in the federal grant program. The state had previously used the money to fund an ad campaign that encouraged teen abstinence and parental involvement in their children's choices regarding sex.

The decision not to reapply hinged on two factors, according to Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the state's public health director . An independent evaluation of the ad campaign found that it was having limited success in reaching kids and in affecting their decisions about sex. And federal policy-makers recently tightened the strings on how the money could be spent.

States previously were allowed to emphasize different ways of promoting abstinence, such as highlighting the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and encouraging discussions between parents and children.

This year, Mills said, Maine was under pressure to tell teens that sex outside of marriage was unacceptable and that couples should be economically self-sufficient before they have sex. She said the federal government's insistence on emphasizing these messages could alienate teens and violate the state law requiring comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education.

Oversight of the federal grant money recently shifted to a new branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration for Children and Families . The change in oversight may have caused the change in standards, Nancy Birkhimer, the director of Teen and Young Adult Health for Maine, a division of the state department of public health, told Stateline.org .

"[The federal government] certainly indicated that they had strengthened their criteria for what we could do," Birkhimer said.

Mills said Maine's success in reducing teen pregnancies also led to the decision to reject the funds. Maine has the third-lowest teen pregnancy rate in the country, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States  (SIECUS), a New York-based education and advocacy group that promotes comprehensive sex education.

Maine's teen pregnancy rate has dropped by 50 percent in 20 years. Mills called this one of the biggest public health successes in the country, and said contraception as well as abstinence had played a role.

"We were in a position of having to turn our backs on proven programs that we have been using for quite a while, versus accepting these (new) standards that we think may actually be harmful to our children," Mills told Stateline.org .

Maine's decision has sparked controversy within the state. Critics fault state officials not only for refusing to inform teens that abstinence is the only sure-fire way of avoiding pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but also for walking away from federal money.

"We maximize federal dollars on every other issue, so why would we move away from that on this issue?" said Bill Becker, executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center , a conservative think tank based in Portland, Maine. "I just find it terribly ironic."

Republican state Sen. Deborah Plowman condemned the decision, the Bangor Daily News reported on Sept. 21. She criticized Gov. John Baldacci (D) and Mills for not first consulting the Legislature and asked her fellow legislators to join her in refusing future requests from the governor for budget increases for the public health department.

Maine's decision has garnered praise from opponents of abstinence-only programs such as Plain Truth for Maine Youth, SIECUS and the American Civil Liberties Union.

It's unusual for a state to turn down federal money, said Marcia Howard, executive director of Federal Funds Information for States , a Washington, D.C.-based tracking service. She said Maine's decision could be explained by the politics attached to abstinence-only programs.

"It's not like this is school lunch or something," Howard said.

About $50 million per year in federal funds to promote abstinence is available to state governments, which receive between $75,000 and $4 million per year through the program, SIECUS statistics show. Overall federal funding for abstinence-only programs has increased an average of $22.1 million per year since 2000, according to statistics compiled by SIECUS. The proposed amount for fiscal 2006 is $206 million, up from $170.5 million in fiscal 2005.