A few weeks ago the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had a minor dustup between the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Massachusetts Attorney General's office over whether or not the Catholic-run hospitals in the Commonwealth had to offer emergency contraception. A law passed during this past summer mandated that all hospitals that treat rape victims have to offer the patient the option of emergency contraception. There are no exceptions in the law. If your hospital treats rape victims they have to offer the option.
On Dec 6 of this year, the Department of Public Health, likey at Governor Mitt Romney's direction, issued a directive that Catholic and other privately-run hospitals did not have to offer that option to patients, citing a 1975 law that states that privately-run hospitals were not required to offer abortions or contraception services. Romney had stated that he was "supportive" of the DPH ruling:
"...Romney said earlier through communications director,Eric Fehrnstrom that he supported the department's ruling because it respected ''the views of healthcare facilities that are guided by moral principles on this issue."The new law had been passed handily over the Governor's veto.
On Dec 8, the Governor reversed his stance, after the state's Attorney General, Thomas F. Reilly issued his opinion that the older law was "trumped" by the new regulation, and the Governor's legal team advised him that the prior DPH ruling would not pass legal challenge. (Reilly will be seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Gov. during the next election cycle).
Supporters of the new law view Romney's earlier endorsement of the DPH ruling as another bid to burnish his "conservative credentials" for his expected run for the GOP nomination for president. Romney is already under fire for traveling across the country and disparaging the people and mores of the Commonwealth. The value of his political capital in the state, not surprisingly, has dropped like a rock. Romney's motives in this matter certainly do not appear to be a concern for the people of the Commonwealth, especially in light of the fact that one of Romney's campaign planks was to increase the access to emergency contraception.
Now the Governor has announced another plan that appears that be a bid to highlight him for the religious conservatives that are currently the power-mongers in the GOP. He has unveiled a new program to introduce an abstinence-only education program into selected high schools. From the Boston Globe (State to push abstinence in schools)
The campaign, scheduled to last through June 2007, will only target certain schools and will be aimed especially at teens in black and Hispanic communities, who tend to have higher rates of sexual activity. The proposal by the state Department of Health, quietly posted on its website earlier this month, would add an abstinence education program for 12-to-14-year-olds in an unspecified number of schools.This initiative is another tussle between the legislature and the Governor, as the legislature repealed a law that mandated using the federal funds for in-school teaching rather than in public advertising. The Governor vetoed the repeal, but his veto was overridden.
The campaign would be funded by a $50 million federal abstinence-only grant program, which provides money to states for initiatives that teach abstinence but deliberately do not address condoms and other methods of contraception.
Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom said that the program will be taught in addition to comprehensive sex education programs already in place, and that students will still learn about contraception methods. He said the administration simply wants to spend the federal grant money more effectively
Abstinence-only programs are coming under fire because they do not offer comprehensive information about all aspects of pregnancy prevention, and have been shown to be dangerous for youth who don't follow the "just say no" regimen, because they do not have the information on how to prevent pregnancies and venereal diseases. Additionally, it is now coming to light that a number of the vendors for these programs are using them to spread false information about the actual effectiveness of other pregnancy prevention strategies, as well as outright falsehoods about condom use and abortion, and that some of these programs are injecting a Christian religious education into the process.
This is also troubling because this program is aimed at a segment of the Commonwealth's youth that historicity have higher rates of sexual activity and need to have full and comprehensive education available.
From the Globe article:
''The message is that we're hoping . . . teens will make good decisions and will learn about making good decisions, and with that develop self-esteem and feel good about where their life is going," Fogerty said.Romney has already announced that he will not seek reelection to the Governor's office, but claims that he will wait until 2007 to decide if he will run for president. It appears fairly clear, from my seat at the table, just what that decision will be.
The state's 2003 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 63 percent of seniors reported being sexually active by the time they left high school. The same survey found that among all adolescents, 59 percent of Hispanic teenagers reported being sexually active, compared to 56 percent of black teens and 37 percent of white teens.
Critics of the new approach say it reflects a change in Romney's position on abstinence-only education since he answered ''yes" when asked on an April 2002 Planned Parenthood questionnaire: ''Do you support the teaching of responsible, age-appropriate, factually accurate health and sexuality education, including information about both abstinence and contraception, in public schools?"
''Governor Romney said one thing when he was running in Massachusetts, because he knew there was broad support there for comprehensive sex education," said Melissa Kogut, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. ''And now he seems to be using Massachusetts as his launching pad to run a presidential campaign, and he's got a different message."
The debate first flared last year when the Legislature passed a measure directing the state to use the federal grant for classroom abstinence instruction, rather than the publicity campaign. Lawmakers later sent Romney a measure repealing that vote, but Romney vetoed it, sending it back to the Legislature with a message: He wanted the money spent on in-school programs. Lawmakers handily rejected that request.
But through the Department of Public Health, Romney has the authority to decide how the state uses the federal money, and he worked closely with the department on a new grant application directed at a school-based abstinence program. The Legislature could move to restrict how the money is spent, or reject the funding altogether, but it's unclear how much support among lawmakers that would have. Three states -- California, Maine, and Pennsylvania -- don't accept the money, called Title V, according to the US Administration for Children and Families.
Opponents of abstinence-only programs say they have no problem with teaching abstinence -- in fact, many believe it should be the primary message of any sex education program. But they say any program that teaches only abstinence is putting teens at risk.
''The problem here is not the abstinence, it's the only," said Angus McQuilken, director of public relations and governmental affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, a leading provider of comprehensive sex education in the public schools. ''We're doing them a disservice if we deny them medically accurate information about how to protect themselves."
The administration's new classroom approach, according to McQuilken and other critics, is far more worrisome than the publicity campaign, because it will actively promote abstinence at the expense of information about contraception.
The federal grant program began under President Clinton, but the US government has funded abstinence education for more than two decades. President Bush has made it a priority.
Jeff Trimbath, director of abstinence education for the US Administration for Children and Families, said initial results from an ongoing evaluation of the grant program show that the abstinence message was getting through to more teenagers.
''The interim result was pretty positive," he said.
But opponents cite a 2004 congressional report released by US Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, which found that many federally funded abstinence programs provide teenagers with distorted, misleading, and incorrect information about sex, pregnancy, and contraception.