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    Bush wants to fund chastity education

    The governor proposes "abstinence-only'' grants from family planning funds. Critics fear a loss of services for poor women.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Following a trend among social conservatives across the country, Gov. Jeb Bush wants to take $1-million of the money Florida spends on family planning at health clinics and spend it instead on telling teens they should remain virgins until marriage.

    The state would hand out "abstinence-only" education grants with a caveat: Counselors wouldn't be allowed to talk about birth control at all. Through other programs, however, teens would still hear the "safe sex" message taught in schools and local health departments.

    Bush says he supports abstinence-only education because "nationally, the programs have got a good record" in preventing teen pregnancy. But while the programs have mushroomed in recent years all over the nation, state officials say neither the state nor the federal government has done a comprehensive evaluation to see if they work.

    Florida already has about 35 chastity education programs. So far, all of them have been funded with federal dollars. Much of the money goes to private groups, many of which are religious. The groups are not supposed to give teens a religious message, even though meetings are often held in churches and speakers come from local congregations.

    Bush's proposal, which is part of his budget request to the Legislature, marks the first time state money would fund programs like Best Friends, Sex Can Wait and Everyone's Not Doing It.

    In west-central Florida, the Pinellas Crisis Pregnancy Center, the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, the Diocese of St. Petersburg and the Boys and Girls Club of Pasco County already run federally funded programs that urge teens to stay virgins until they are married.

    Critics say Bush's move to fund more chastity education programs will siphon money from family-planning programs that offer medical care for poor women who have no health insurance.

    Carolyn Pardue, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, said Bush's idea to redirect family planning money into teen chastity programs will prevent as many as 10,000 poor women from getting Pap smears, breast cancer screening, HIV tests and birth control counseling at their local county health department or women's clinic.

    "Is this the best bang for the buck? I don't think so," said Democratic Rep. Joyce Cusack of DeLand, who has worked as a public health nurse. "Family planning involves a lot of preventive care for women. We talk about early detection for cancer -- well, this is one of the methods the state has in place for early detection."

    Bush and his health secretary, Bob Brooks, say those services won't be cut, even though $1-million will be taken out of the state's $5.7-million family planning budget to pay for the chastity programs.

    Some lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, say it's fine to teach teens that abstinence is a good option. But they are squeamish about banning counselors from even mentioning birth control, and they wonder what evidence exists to prove the programs work.

    "I don't support gagging people from talking about other forms of contraceptives," said Carol Green, a Republican lawmaker from Fort Myers. "I have a problem about not giving young people all the information."

    "It really isn't a gag order on the counselors," said Annette Phelps, who oversees abstinence programs for the Florida Department of Health. "The best health message we can give is monogamy in the context of marriage. If we were to mix that message with contraceptive use, it's confusing."

    Several years ago, the Colorado Council of Black Nurses in Denver got a federal "abstinence-only" education grant but then gave the money back, saying it was "crazy" to tell kids to remain chaste if they couldn't also talk about birth control as a backup.

    Abstinence-only programs have multiplied in Florida and in the rest of the nation since 1996, when Congress set aside $250-million to fund the state programs. The money was inserted into the federal budget without any debate.

    "My problem is, we've never done an analysis of abstinence education, and we're pouring money into it," said Rep. Anne Gannon, a newly elected Democrat from Delray Beach who was once a lobbyist for an association of professional women.

    Rep. Nancy Detert, a Republican lawmaker from Venice, also worries that the chastity education programs haven't been evaluated.

    "I don't know how effective these programs would be," Detert said. "It's like "just say no' to drugs. I don't think that worked."

    The largest federal grant handed out in Florida so far is nearly a million dollars to Florida Christian College in Osceola County. The money is paying for teen rallies, parent education programs, "abstinence-only" support groups and a media campaign. A review of the community sponsors shows that many are religious in nature.

    According to a letter on file at the state Department of Health, the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church is providing speakers and meeting space.

    "We are supporting the concept of Abstinence Only Education because the Catholic Church encourages young people to be faithful to the commandments, teachings and advice of our Lord, which are also revealed to everyone through Scripture," wrote John McCormick, the church pastor.

    The Northeast Christian Church in Kissimmee also offered meeting space and speakers, adding in its letter of support, "We believe that programs based on what the Bible teaches are the only way to transform our society."

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