Friday, April 21, 2006

Mass. Gov. Romney expands sex-abstinence programs

Mass. Gov. Romney expands sex-abstinence programs
By Belinda Yu

BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney unveiled an expansion of teenage sexual-abstinence programs in the heavily Democratic state on Thursday, polishing his conservative credentials ahead of a possible White House run.

Under the plan, the federally-funded Christian organization Healthy Futures will fund abstinence programs in Massachusetts classrooms, adding the state to a growing list of U.S. states that have expanded sex-abstinence education.

From 2000 to 2005, President Bush more than doubled funding for such programs, which teach that abstinence from sexual activity until marriage is the only sure way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other health problems.

"If we want our kids to wait to become sexually active until after they've graduated from high school, we're going to have to tell them that, rather than have them try to read our minds," Romney told a news conference.

Some analysts said expanding the program appeared aimed at strengthening Romney's political support among Christian evangelicals and other conservatives at the base of the Republican party ahead of a likely White House bid.

"It's kind of a low-cost appeal to conservatives outside of Massachusetts," said Julian Zelizer, professor of U.S. history at Boston University. "He's looking for things he can do to say to conservatives -- especially Christian evangelical activists -- 'Hey I'm with you,'."

Healthy Futures will receive $800,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the Massachusetts program over the next two years.

The state has accepted federal funds for a decade for abstinence programs, but has always used the money on media campaigns instead of the classroom.

"This is the first time that we're applying this money for a classroom-based abstinence program," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's spokesman.

Romney, a 59-year-old millionaire Mormon who gained national attention for turning around the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, has taken other steps to distance himself from his state's liberal reputation on hot-button social issues such as abortion.

In a failed 1994 campaign to unseat Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, he said abortion should stay "safe and legal," but more recently he declared himself "firmly pro-life".

"He's clearly trying to position himself for the Republican nomination and has been for some time," said Thomas Patterson, professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "He's trying to get himself in a position where he can work with the Christian right and draw support from them in the primary process," added Patterson.

Romney said teaching children to abstain from premarital sex would not preclude teaching them about other pregnancy-prevention measures. "No school district is going to be eliminating all of their sex education classes, including discussing contraception," he said.

The money will allow Healthy Futures to reach 9,000 students in 12 Massachusetts communities by 2008, up from its current 5,500 middle- and high-school students, said Rebecca Ray, Healthy Futures program director.