WASHINGTON, Oct. 31, 2006 — -- If you're single and in your 20s, the federal government wants you to steer clear of sex.
That's the new guidance for states under the Department of Health and Human Services' $50 million Abstinence Education Program. HHS officials say it's not a requirement -- just another option for states to combat what they call an alarming rise in out-of-wedlock births.
A record 1.5 million babies were born to single mothers in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. More than half of them were born to women in their early 20s.
Critics of the guidelines, such as James Wagoner, president of a group whose top goal is a "society that views sexuality as normal and healthy," say such statistics illustrate that most people in their 20s are already having sex.
Wagoner's group, Advocates for Youth, argues that it's futile to try to sell 20-somethings on chastity. He says birth control is a smarter way to prevent pregnancies.
"This is a clear signal that they're using these resources -- taxpayer dollars -- to promote an ideological agenda," Wagoner says. "It has nothing to do with public health."
But HHS officials say the guidelines are not new, that department's Administration for Children and Families "merely informed States of the flexibility permitted under Federal law."
"The government's clarification published in August is not a mandate," the Administration for Children and Families said in a statement prepared in response to ABC News questions. "We are unclear why Advocates for Youth suddenly believes (after two months) that States should be denied the flexibility to provide young adults with the truth that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way of avoiding unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases."
The guidelines let states use federal grants to "identify groups" of people between the ages of 12 to 29 who "are most likely to bear children out of wedlock." After identifying the groups, targeted programs can then "support decisions to delay sexual activity until marriage."