Conflict of Interest?
Abstinence education grant raises questions
BY BECCI ROBBINS
Susan Fulmer, an AIDS specialist at the University of South Carolina's School of Public Health, is troubled by the process the state is using to apply for a $1.4 million abstinence education grant. The money is part of $50 million in new federal dollars to fund programs which "teach that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."
Grant applications are being handled by DHEC for the Governor's Office, which will convene a panel to review the proposals after a public comment period ends on Sept. 30.
Fulmer was surprised to learn, from a DHEC press release, that in South Carolina only groups that "have as their exclusive purpose the promotion of sexual abstinence until marriage" are eligible to apply for the grant. The language in the federal guidelines says the grant will fund abstinence-only programs; those issued by DHEC state that the money will fund abstinence-only organizations.
Dr. Peter Van Dyck, of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office overseeing the grant, was not aware that South Carolina's application guidelines had been worded to restrict the pool of possible recipients to groups whose sole mission is abstinence-only education. He doesn't know if the maneuver is legal, but urged that the issue be raised with the Governor's Office.
Gary Karr, the governor's spokesman, said that he believed the restrictive language was intentional but would not discuss the matter until he obtained a copy of the guidelines. At press time he had not called back. Neither had Joyce Brown, of DHEC's Division of Women's and Children's Health.
Fulmer called Brown last month to express her concerns about the wording of the guidelines, and was assured that it was not the agency's intent to restrict the grant money to abstinence-only groups, although that is precisely what Brown said in the press release.
What the restriction means is that churches, schools and community-based programs may not apply for the money because teaching abstinence is not their exclusive mission.
meets the criteria to apply for
the grant: Family Honor,
on whose advisory board sits the
governor's wife, Mary Wood Beasley.
According to records filed with the Charities Division of the Attorney General's Office, it appears that only one group meets the criteria to apply for the grant, and that is Family Honor, on whose advisory board sits the governor's wife, Mary Wood Beasley.
"It's not only odd, it's discriminatory and unethical," Fulmer said. "Isn't that a clear conflict of interest?"
Brenda Hucks, Family Honor's executive director, said she knows of only one other organization, a new group in Charleston which has yet to file paperwork with the state, that would be eligible to apply for the grant.
It isn't just the appearance of impropriety that makes Fulmer uncomfortable. She is disturbed by the governor's habit of blurring church and state matters, by the power conservative Christians seem to have over him, and by decisions that carry profound public health implications being driven by bad science.
Critics point to the governor's recent record and say that he may be playing it safe politically but that he is being reckless with the public's health. In February, Gov. Beasley stopped the state health department from distributing condoms. In June, he vetoed $125,000 that was to fund teen pregnancy prevention councils even though they had reportedly cut teen pregnancies by half in some counties.
Now the governor is pushing abstinence-only education despite studies that show such programs don't keep teens chaste. Or safe.
According to Planned Parenthood of South Carolina's Executive Director, Jane Emerson, a review conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy of nearly 80 teen pregnancy prevention programs found that abstinence-only programs did not delay or reduce sexual activity.
A global study published by the World Health Organization found that teaching young people about contraception and safer sex does not lead to earlier onset or higher frequency of teen sex.
More than 90 national, mainstream groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, support a comprehensive approach to sex education, which includes age-appropriate information about contraception, abortion, sexual orientation and preventing sexually transmitted infections.
South Carolina is one of five states to prohibit discussing abortion. It is one of eight to recommend teaching that homosexuality is not an acceptable "lifestyle" and that active homosexuals can be charged with criminal conduct.
"In a state ranking high in sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy rates," Fulmer said, "it is time for our governor to stop furthering his interests at the expense of our young people."
Questions regarding the grant may be directed to Joyce Brown, DHEC's Bureau of Maternal and Child Health, Division of Women's and Children's Services, 2600 Bull St., Columbia, SC 29201. Written comments must be postmarked by Sept. 30. Brown may be reached at 803-737-3924.