In the News
A new sex education program aimed at preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in at-risk teens in the Fargo, North Dakota, area—specifically homeless and runaway teens and those in the foster care system—almost didn't happen. This past September, two North Dakota State University (NDSU) colleagues, Molly Secor-Turner, an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing, and Brandy A. Randall, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, received a federal grant of $1.2 million to operate the program for three years. In January, however, just three weeks before the pair was to start the first week of classes in the local community, the university froze the funding.
At issue was the involvement of Planned Parenthood in the program. One of the requirements of the grant was to have an evidence-based program at the core of the curriculum, and Planned Parenthood's regional office in St. Paul, Minnesota (which serves both North and South Dakota), had an established outreach program with a proven track record. The partnership makes sense, Secor-Turner says, because Planned Parenthood has the existing departmental support and infrastructure to support the program.
What's more, Randall explains, the organization's Making Proud Choices program, which includes a peer-education component, represents a great opportunity to get the teens involved and learning.
The funding freeze came, however, when university officials raised the issue of a possible violation of a 1979 North Dakota law, which states that “no federal funds passing through the state treasury or a state agency may be used as family planning funds by any person or public or private agency which performs, refers or encourages abortion.”
Planned Parenthood doesn't perform abortions in North Dakota or have clinics there, and an appeals court struck down at least part of the law in 1981, but officials deemed the legal question unclear enough to freeze the funding. According to the Web-based news site Inforum, University spokeswoman Laura McDaniel stated that NDSU is a state agency and “does not have the discretion to disregard a possible violation of state law.”
Planned Parenthood expressed outrage at the freeze, calling it “politics at its worst.” The organization urged that the program move forward, stating that it would “provide North Dakota's most vulnerable [teens] with strong, clear messages about abstinence as well as medically accurate information about human reproduction and disease transmission.”
Good news for the program came on February 14, when state attorney general Wayne Stenehjem gave his opinion that the 1981 appeals court ruling invalidated the law in question entirely, allowing for NDSU to accept the funds.
The NDSU team received the news happily. “It's really great in terms of what it means for adolescent health in North Dakota,” says Secor-Turner. Still, the freeze cost their program more than a month of valuable time and left them wary. “I think that what happened with our grant shines a very bright light on our need as a society to be clear on the role of science as a component of our decision making,” says Randall. “What works isn't always politically expedient, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored.”—Laura Wallis