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In MN, does political posturing trump teen pregnancy prevention

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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Some health education advocates are dismayed that Minnesota passed up more than $850,000 in federal funds for comprehensive sex education - money that was available without requiring matching state dollars. It came about due to an executive order signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty this week directing state agencies not to apply for the grants, which are linked to the Affordable Care Act. He said such programs are "an intrusion by the federal government into personal health care matters." However, the governor does support a federal grant promoting abstinence-only education that requires a 75-percent state match.

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Brigid Riley, executive director of the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Parenting (MOAPPP), disagrees with the governor's position.

"It seems to me, because he said yes to accepting 'abstinence-only until marriage' funding, that this is much more about politics than it is about pregnancy prevention. It seems really unfortunate that kids are getting stuck in the middle of a whole bunch of political posturing."

Riley says she can't understand why the governor would turn down funding for effective education programming. She points to more than 30 years of research that demonstrates teens taught about all ways of preventing pregnancy and disease - not just abstinence - are more likely to wait longer before having sex. They also have fewer partners and use condoms and contraception more effectively.

Half of Minnesota teens become sexually active before high school graduation, Riley notes. She warns that limiting sex education to abstinence-only programs will carry serious consequences for public health.

"The pregnancy rates have come down quite a bit over the last couple of decades. But we've seen a really big jump in the HIV infections among young people, as well as the rates of Chlamydia and other sexually transmitted infections. This is happening not just here in the Twin Cities, but all over the state."

Shawna Assendorf, youth development coordinator for Watonwan County, has been teaching sex education for the past five years in southern Minnesota and has seen first-hand the limitations of funding restrictions. She started out with an abstinence-only program using peer educators - older teens who help teach junior high students.

"The peer educators said - from the very first time, when we were still doing the abstinence-only education - 'You need to teach about safe sex in the schools.' They recommended it right away. But at that point it was not an option, because we were running under the Enable grant."

Assendorf is currently funded under a grant that allows her to do more comprehensive sex education. She says she doesn't know yet how the governor's decision will affect the future funding for her position, but feels her current approach works, where she stresses the importance of abstinence first, but also teaches safe sex options.

"I've never seen anybody make poor decisions with more education. I think the more education we can give our teens, the better decisions they'll make."

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