At a time when teenagers need a clear message about safe sex, Pennsylvania is sending the wrong signal.

For the first time in several years, the state Department of Health is seeking $1.7 million in federal funds that would be allocated to public schools and organizations to teach abstinence-only sex education.

That's an abrupt shift for the Rendell administration, which has not disbursed such funds since the governor took office in 2003.

Studies have given failing marks to abstinence-only education programs, which have proved ineffective in delaying sexual activity by teenagers.

In the past, the Health Department has instead supported only schools that offer comprehensive sex-education programs that teach students about abstinence as well as about contraception and birth control.

So why such a drastic and conflicting policy change that would undermine the broader message endorsed by the state to give students the knowledge they need to make informed choices?

A spokeswoman says the department did not want to stand in the way of community groups that wanted access to federal money available for abstinence-only. No state funds will be used for such programs.

But that explanation seems weak, since the same federal funds can be secured directly by groups or schools - without state involvement.

At least 17 states, including New Jersey, do not apply for such funds. Pennsylvania should reconsider venturing down this slippery slope.

The funds could be used only for abstinence-until-marriage programs. Teachers would be barred from discussing birth control, except to tell students those methods fail.

Critics believe that message gives students a misguided view. Such programs are also said to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Abstinence-only supporters say they want teenagers to know that's the only foolproof way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Teaching teens about abstinence and birth control would give them a confused message, they say.

Abstinence should be stressed to teenagers, at home and at school. But many are having sex, and they need to know other ways to reduce the danger of disease or pregnancy.

While teen pregnancies have fallen recently, sexually transmitted diseases, especially among young girls, have been on the rise.

A study earlier this year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in four young women ages 14 to 19 was infected with at least one of four common sexually transmitted diseases.

To make good decisions, teenagers need to know all of their options - including abstinence. The state should not participate in encouraging programs that offer anything less.