The Obama Mandate: End Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

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RH Reality Check

The Obama Mandate: End Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

Republicans these days are very, very deeply concerned about "wasteful government spending."  House Minority Leader John Boehner complained about wasteful spending in the stimulus.  Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana stated: "More big government spending...won't cure what ails the American economy."  House Republican Whip Eric Kantor made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows talking "waste, waste, waste."  And now, according to the New York Times, the National Republican Congressional Committee is launching ads blasting House Democrats on the stimulus bill, which it ridicules as "chockfull of wasteful Washington spending."

You know what?  I agree.  Let's get rid of that wasteful Washington spending.

And I have a concrete suggestion that will save over $200 million in cold hard cash right away, plus billions of dollars in future healthcare and related economic costs!

Sound too good to be true?  

Really, it's not a gimmick.  It's very simple: We just need to zero out funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the next budget cycle.

These programs don't work to reduce sexual activity in teens, they don't work to reduce sexually transmitted infections and they don't work to reduce unintended pregnancies.

What is worse, they waste money both on the front end and the back end: The failure of these programs to effectively contribute to preventing unintended pregnancies and infections from the outset actually costs more money in the long run.  In 2004, for example, teen childbearing in the United States cost taxpayers at least $9.1 billion, never mind the costs of sexually transmitted infections.  So by investing in abstinence-only programs, taxpayers actually are losing billions at a rapid clip.

So it's easy.  Eliminate the funding; we all save money now and money later.  

Given the general concern about wasteful spending, the desire to ensure the prudent investments of taxpayer funds in ways that yield positive benefits, concerns about rising health care costs, and the now-overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only programs don't work, one might assume it will be easy to reach bipartisan agreement that abstinence-only programs, like the bridges to nowhere of the past,  should just be cut.  No bickering, no posturing...pure and simple.  Should be easy.

We will soon find out.

Given they control the White House and Congress, the ball actually is in the Democrats' court for now.  Several observers have suggested it may be too late to remove funding for abstinence-only from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 appropriations bill, which has yet to be passed and which will likely be rolled into a giant omnibus bill to be dealt with by Congress.  (Although given their concerns, perhaps the Republicans will offer an amendment to take it out?)

But President Obama is expected to release his first federal budget request, for FY 2010, at the end of February, and the pressure is on to eliminate ab-only funding in this next fiscal cycle.  A number of leading advocacy groups, including Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS) have launched campaigns urging President Obama to do just that.  Both point to promises made by Obama during the campaign and in his inaugural speech to put an end to these programs, and to ensure evidence drives public policy.  (To take action see Advocates for Youth here, and SIECUS here).

Candidate Obama, for example, "firmly oppose(d) federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs."  He also declared support for "comprehensive sex education that is age-appropriate," and asserted that providing "science-based sex education in schools [is] the right thing to do."  As a Senator, he was a co-sponsor of the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would provide funding for comprehensive, medically accurate sex education, and the Prevention First Act which supports efforts to reduce unintended pregnancy and increase access to contraceptive services and information.  Moreover, during the transition, a Congressional liaison from the President-Elect's transition team reportedly communicated directly to congressional leaders Obama's firm opposition to continued funding for abstinence-only programs, expressing again his full support for comprehensive approaches.

Still, many advocates want Obama to make this crystal clear when he releases his budget and not, according to fears expressed by some, just give "broad guidance to Congress" as he did with the stimulus package.   They want the White House to make its priorities known.  James Wagoner, President of Advocates for Youth, notes that:

"What President Obama does on abstinence-only-until-marriage funding in his first budget will be the flagship signal for young people regarding the President's credibility on reproductive and sexual health issues.  Obama was explicitly supportive of comprehensive sex education and science-based approaches to public policy during his campaign.  This budget must zero out abstinence-only funding.  It simply has to go."

The majority of Americans apparently agree with Wagoner and the President on comprehensive programming.  According to a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, originally published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the majority of American adults (80.4 percent) favor a balanced approach to sex education in schools, regardless of their political leanings.  The survey gauged strong support for teaching children about both abstinence and other ways of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  And, as Wagoner points out, support for the stimulus package proposed by the President polled 20 points higher among 18 to 29 year olds then the rest of the population, indicating the very high level of political support among young adult voters for "doing the right thing."

And here is where it gets a little complicated.

First of all, under the Bush Administration, funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs rose from $97.5 million in 2000 to $215 million in 2008.  The funding kept rising, even when Democrats were in control of Congress, and even after numerous studies, including a federally-funded evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and published in April 2007, showed that these programs were ineffective.  The Mathematica study reviewed four carefully selected abstinence-only education programs, and showed that youth enrolled in the programs were no more likely than those not in the programs to delay sexual initiation, to have fewer sexual partners, or to abstain entirely from sex.

Still, the programs retained strong support from powerful organizations, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and from a wide array of conservative evangelical groups receiving federal funds to promote abstinence-only.  As a result, some members of Congress, including Congressman David Obey, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, have been reluctant to cut such funding in the past.  Obey, for one, comes from a heavily Catholic district near Milwaukee.  Absent a clear message from the White House that the days of abstinence-only are over, some fear that members like Obey may not remove this funding from the House appropriations bill. 

And if the stimulus debacle was any indication, we can anticipate that, despite their concern for waste in government, at least a few Republican leaders will try to twist the debate on funding of abstinence-only programs until the facts lay in tatters on the green room floors of cable stations across the land.  If that happens, then other members, even Democrats, may feel pressured to act against both the evidence and that ever-invoked "will of the American people" just to mollify the loudest in the farthest right.

Max contracted HIV from his first sexual experience at 17 years old. Max places some of the blame on abstinence-only sex education. Watch part two of Max's story.

Because of these complicated politics, nothing is guaranteed.  To ensure the House does the right thing, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a strong supporter of evidence-based programs, needs to use her leadership role and make clear to her members from the outset that the goal is to end funding for these programs once and for all. 

Second, there is no line item for comprehensive sexual health education in the federal budget, and bills proactively supporting these programs have yet to be passed.  Related programs also desperately need additional funding.  According to Bill Smith, Vice President for Public Policy at SIECUS:

"The challenge is not just about getting rid of funding for abstinence-only programs, it's also about fulfilling the committment to fund comprehensive sex education, increasing HIV prevention and Title X funding and about increased funding for the broader reproductive and sexual health services needed by people throughout this country."

So to really fulfill his own mandate, Obama has to cut out money for programs that don't work and proactively fund programs that do work, and which people urgently need, like family planning, sexual health education, HIV prevention and the rest. 

For now, however, abstinence-only remains a boondoggle and a dangerous one at that.  Originally reported by Joe Sonka on Amplify, an Advocates for Youth site, and then on RH Reality Check, one such program supported by $800,000 of your tax dollars pays a clown with dubious credentials (ok, I admit I do not know the full curriculum at clown school) to teach adolescents about "saving sex for marriage."  Great for that first birthday party, but not so much for safer sex, unless he teaches creative use of the balloons.  And even then I am not so sure.  But clearly the content of this program was embarrassing enough that once exposed, both the clown, and Elizabeth's New Life Center, lucky recipient of all these funds, removed information regarding the program from their respective web sites.

And while the clown example may provide fodder for late-night television comedy, other programs engage in dangerous reinforcement of attitudes and behaviors that denigrate women, blacks, hispanics and homosexuals.  For example, another program uncovered by Amplify, again in Ohio, involved a video role-play of four teens at a party, one of whom, a female, offers to drive her drunk (male) friend home.  When he rapes her, the role-play blames her for "putting herself in a risky situation" and for "having a reputation," suggesting her claims of rape are suspect.  So this program actually blames the victim for the rape, and dismisses the guy's behavior as a "boys will be boys" escapade.  Apparently strength of conviction by the organization running this program about the video dissipated as fast as you could say "blog post," because once again, the video got changed right after the program was exposed.  Shows you what a little "transparency" might find.

Reinforcement of prejudicial attitudes, bias and discrimination based on race and sexual identity also are rife within these programs, many of which are subject to little if any oversight for content.  A report by Legal Momentum, for example, found that many federally funded abstinence-only programs discourage condom use, distort reproductive health information, and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.  "Many programs also perpetuate sexist and racist stereotypes about women of color," adds the report.  

One example is 'The Choice Game' which:

"Has a 'Midwest School version' that features 95 percent white students and an 'urban school version,' featuring '55% African-American actors, 24% Hispanic actors and the remaining are Caucasian.'  The urban version contains stereotypes of African-American women as sexually aggressive and as drug users, and of African-American men as likely to end up in jail.  In sharp contrast, the Midwest materials depict white students working to maintain their 'traditional values.'"

Reports by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union reveal similar findings.  And a 2004 report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that

"over 80% of the abstinence-only curricula, used by over two-thirds of grantees [reviewed] in 2003, contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health." 

In short, the programs reviewed by the Committee took an industrial-size eraser to the line between separation of church and state, relying on heavy does of prosyletizing and religious content to get their ineffective messages across.

Finally, a report by Douglas Kirby, a Senior Research Scientist at ETR Associates conducted for the National Campaign to Reduce Teen Pregnancy stated that:

At present, there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners. In addition, there is strong evidence from multiple randomized trials demonstrating that some abstinence programs chosen for evaluation because they were believed to be promising actually had no impact on teen sexual behavior. That is, they did not delay the initiation of sex, increase the return to abstinence or decrease the number of sexual partners. At the same time, they did not have a negative impact on the use of condoms or other contraceptives.  Studies of abstinence programs have not produced sufficient evidence to justify their widespread dissemination.

What more do we need to know to avoid putting several hundred million more dollars through a giant shredder?

In this new era of citizen participation, accountability, and respect for  evidence and human rights, it is up to us to ensure our elected officials get rid of this particular barrel of pork.

"On one hand," says Marcela Howell, Vice President of Policy and Communications at Advocates for Youth, 

"We have a Democratic President who has pledged to get rid of this spending.  We have a majority of Democrats in Congress who have publicly stated opposition to this funding, and we have a Republican party on the hunt for wasteful spending.  It seems like an easy decision."

It should be easy.  But to be honest, given this situation, if we can't mobilize enough grassroots strength to ensure the President and Congress get rid of these funds, bring back the clown because the joke is on us. 9366

Jodi Jacobson

Jodi L. Jacobson is a long-time leader in the health and development community and an advocate with extensive experience in public health, gender equity, human rights, environment and demographic issues. She is currently Editor-in-Chief of RH Reality Check.

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