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Feeling the burn, Mitt?

Governor Mitt Romney has been getting a lot of exercise lately. First, he stepped to the right on stem-cell research here in Massachusetts. Then, at out-of-state speeches last week, he danced around his stances on gay marriage and abortion. Now, it seems the governor is running conservative for the fourth time in as many weeks, this time on the issue of sex education in the stateís public schools.

Last week, Romney proposed a state-budget amendment that would require all federal abstinence-only-education money to be used solely for classroom education. Previously, the funds could go toward media campaigns, posters, and public-service announcements, which comprehensive-sex-education supporters considered a more benign use. Now, unless the legislature rejects Romneyís amendment, the money will go exclusively toward a form of sex ed that opponents describe as misleading and inefficient.

Federal funding for abstinence-only education has skyrocketed under the Bush administration (see "In Denial," This Just In, February 18). In the past, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) used its federal allocation to run a media campaign that told young people, "You donít have to do it." But in 2004, conservative legislators managed to add to a supplemental-budget request a measure that prevented the DPH from using funds in this way. To fight back, comprehensive-sex-ed advocates succeeded last month in attaching a proposal of their own (known as Outside Section 28A) to a different budget measure. Outside Section 28A would have repealed the conservative prohibition and allowed the state to use abstinence funds in whatever way it saw fit. However, not only did Romney veto the proposal last Thursday, but he added the further amendment that makes the application of abstinence-only funds even more restrictive.

Conservative organizations such as the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) are thrilled. "Itís beyond all shadow of a doubt that the most effective abstinence training is in the classroom," says MFI president Kris Mineau. "We applaud the governorís excellent leadership and role modeling of traditional values here in the Commonwealth."

But many say that teaching abstinence only results in declining contraceptive use when teens eventually do have sex, because they donít know enough about their contraceptive options. Tina Alu, associate director of the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Commission and director of Cambridge Family Planning, has been teaching comprehensive sex ed ó and the advantages of abstinence as part of that curriculum ó for more than 20 years. She likes to think of effective sex ed as a menu. "Thereís a lot of different techniques and tools people can choose from," she says, and thereís no research to show that limiting options makes for better decision-making.

While campaigning for office in 2002, Romney told the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts that he supported the teaching of both abstinence and contraception in Massachusetts classrooms. With this most recent action, it seems heís tacking in the other direction ó which has reproductive-rights advocates worried about the fate of what many consider to be this sessionís top legislative priority: a bill that would allow emergency contraception (the "morning-after pill") to be sold over the counter (see "Not So EC After All," News and Features, July 16, 2004).

"Frankly, thatís going to be the next thing on the horizon for our governor," says Melissa Kogut, president of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. "We really have great momentum around the emergency-contraception bill, and we hope that itís going to come to the governorís desk. [B]ut his recent comments and his decisions on abstinence-only funding in our state really raise doubts and concerns about whether weíll have his support for that."

Comprehensive-sex-ed allies believe they still have a fighting chance on this one. Elaine OíReilly, a Governmental Strategies lobbyist for the Massachusetts Family Planning Association, is confident that with the support of both the House and Senate leadership, the legislature will reject Romneyís amendment and keep the original measure alive.

Letís just hope emergency-contraception access isnít the next punching bag in the governorís exercise routine.

Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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