Iowa Reconsidering Abstinence-Only Funding

Lynda Waddington

At a state policy briefing on Thursday morning, Iowa legislators were asked to end federally funded abstinence-only sex education in the state. The move would make Iowa the seventeenth state to reject Title V abstinence-only funding.

At a state policy briefing on Thursday morning, Iowa legislators and other state officials were asked to end federally funded abstinence-only sex education in the state. The move would make Iowa the 17th state to reject Title V abstinence-only funding.

Rep. Mary Mascher, a Democrat from Iowa City, sponsored and floor managed a bill during the 2007 session that required all sexual education taught in accredited Iowa schools to be medically- and scientifically-based. Signed into law last spring, the bill did not necessarily put an end to abstinence-only sex education teaching in Iowa, but it did ratify standards and guidelines that directly conflict with those associated with federal funding streams.

"There's been discussion on whether or not we should be accepting these federal monies at all because the criteria for abstinence-only programs at the federal level is not medically accurate," said Mascher, who is sponsoring Thursday's policy briefing. "The standards that [organizations] have to abide by for the federal money do not call for scientifically-based information. In essence, [the guideline conflicts] would prevent schools from getting those monies. They could still teach abstinence-only sexual education, but they can't use the federal dollars in order to do it."

Representatives from FutureNet, the Iowa Network for adolescent pregnancy prevention, parenting and sexual health, are scheduled to speak at the briefing and to call for the complete refusal of Title V abstinence-only education funding. Iowa currently receives roughly $319,000 from the program, which is administered by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Prior to Bethany Christian Services of Northwest Iowa being awarded a $600,000 non-matching grant last September from the Administration of Children, Youth and Families (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), the Title V monies were the only such federal abstinence education funding in the state. Nationally, Title V provides more than $40 million a year in matching funds to states.

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"Iowa must end this poor fiscal and public health policy now," said Rhonda Chittenden, executive director of FutureNet. "There is no reliable evidence to date that these abstinence-only programs impact the long-term behavioral outcomes at which they aim, such as the delay of sexual initiation and reduction of adolescent pregnancies and STI/HIV infections."

Chittenden's sentiments regarding abstinence-only education were echoed by Mascher.

"I've been a classroom teacher for the last 30 years," Mascher said. "I taught sex education programs in the Iowa City School District for most of those years. One of the things that I think is critical in anything that we do with kids is being honest and accurate. If we expect to have credibility, I think it is extremely important that information we give them be scientifically and medically accurate.

"It comes down to best teaching practices. We know that scare tactics don't work with young kids and that, if anything, it has a very limited kind of effect. What you want to do is give them good information, and be able to help them with decision-making skills. Those are the problem-solving skills that we want kids to be able to develop at an early age so that when they get to the age where they are making those kinds of choices, they're making good choices. Of course, we would like all kids to be abstinent until they are ready and mature enough to be able to handle those types of relationships."

Doug Kirby, an adolescent health researcher commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, will present his findings on the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs versus comprehensive sex education in reducing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in adolescent populations. Of the 48 programs included in his study, the only programs that had strong evidence for delaying sexual initiation were comprehensive programs.

"We know that a lot of the programs that are out there are very much religious based and may not have a scientific base to them," Mascher said. "That leads to doubts on whether the information is accurate, and whether it will withstand the test of time in terms of helping kids make good choices. We examined a lot of curriculum and found that some of them are using scare tactics. Some of them are using outdated information. Things are changing so rapidly in the medical world and I think one of the things we want is to be able to give the best information possible and the most current."

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