William Smith is Vice President for Public Policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Last week New Jersey became the fourth state to pull itself out of the federal scheme to distribute abstinence-only-until-marriage money. New Jersey, like Maine and California before it, decided that in addition to never having been proven effective as a broad strategy, the federal abstinence-only-until-marriage programs ran contrary to its own state's laws regarding sexuality education. If the state chose to accept the nearly $1 million of federal funds it was entitled to, it would not only have had to follow strict federal rules, it would also have had come up with a match of three state-raised dollars to every federal dollar. New Jersey's decision was therefore not just principled, but fiscally responsible as well.
The rebuke comes as a result of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ever increasing restrictions on how the nearly $200 million per year of federal funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage must be spent. For example, grantees of one funding account are required to target individuals ages 12-29. Under stipulations from another account, grantees are required to define sexual activity as "any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse." Under this lunacy, young people are told to abstain from everything from kissing to handholding to watching TV-anything that generates any type of sexual response. (I suppose this shouldn't surprise us given that this comes from the same crowd that recommends abstinent youth refrain from socializing with sexually active peers for fear of contagion.)
New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine is to be commended for his decision to side with common sense and every major public health entity in the country and, indeed, around the globe. Many of us worked Corzine endlessly about this issue during his Senate tenure. State groups – in particular ANSWER, the group that creates the great teen newsletter Sex, Etc., and the New Jersey ACLU — worked to help strengthen the environment for sexuality education in New Jersey and get the state government out of the business of peddling this right wing extremism.
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Disappointingly, one state that had previously opted out of the federal scheme has reversed course. Perhaps what is most astonishing is that the reversal comes from one of the most liberal and progressive Governors in the country — Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. For the past two years, Pennsylvania did not apply for abstinence-only-until-marriage money. This year, reports confirm that it will. In a state where the stalwart conservative Senator, Rick Santorum, may likely go down to defeat and where Rendell seems assured another term, the decision to jump back into the cauldron seems to be either the result of political pandering or thoughtlessness. Either way, advocates should make clear to Rendell that progressives are elected to jettison right-wing extremism, not coddle it and serve as a mechanism to funnel money to its supporters.
The good news is that over the course of the next year, several other states are certain to follow New Jersey's decision. And, Rendell ought to find his bearings again as well.
Editor's note: We misprinted the number of years that Pennsylvania did not apply for abstinence-only-until-marriage funding. The correction has been made above.