Protersters in Philadelphia denounce the Bush administration's abstinence-only programs.

At What Price Victory?

In order to pass their budget, House Democrats have proposed increasing the funding of a harmful abstinence-only program

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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The House Appropriations Committee subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education shocked many progressives in early June when it approved a $32 million increase for the discredited Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program. The extra money seems particularly strange, since congressional Democrats announced last month that they would allow a major source of abstinence-only funding to expire at the end of June.

In April, a congressionally mandated report confirmed that current federally funded abstinence programs are ineffective. The multi-year study conducted by Mathematica Research examined youths who participated in abstinence-only education programs funded under Title V of the Welfare Reform Act. The authors concluded that kids who participated were no more likely to abstain from sex until marriage and no less sexually active than the control group that got no abstinence training.

In the wake of the study, congressional Democrats pulled the plug on abstinence funding through Title V. But it makes little sense to squelch Title V while boosting CBAE because the two programs share the same curriculum guidelines. If Title V is a waste of money, so is CBAE.

The proposed boost for CBAE is just one item in the multi-billion dollar domestic appropriations bill known as Labor-H. If the bill passes, CBAE will get $141 million, up from $109 million in 2007. President Bush only asked for $137 million for CBAE in his budget.

The Labor-H bill is the second largest chunk of domestic discretionary spending, behind only defense appropriations. The subcommittee’s version allots a grand total of $151.548 billion for fiscal year 2008. This figure includes funds for Medicare, Medicaid, and many other critical programs and services.

The bill also sets aside an additional $27.8 million for Title X, the largest source of federal family planning funds for the poor. President Bush did not request any additional money for Title X.

Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), a former chairman of the Labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee, told Congressional Quarterly Today that Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey (D-Wis.) “balanced [increased funding for CBAE] out with an equal amount to Planned Parenthood.” (Regula was apparently conflating Planned Parenthood with Title X.) But Vania Leveille, legislative counsel with the ACLU, decries the idea that funding for abstinence-only education can be equated with funding for reproductive healthcare.

“Any attempt to equate the two is unfortunate and it’s wrong,” she says.

This apparent change of heart from the Democrats on abstinence-only education is an attempt to build a veto-proof majority for Labor-H. According to the June 7 Congressional Quarterly Today, President Bush has vowed to veto any Labor-H bill that exceeds the amount that he set aside in his budget. Bush put forward a $698 billion budget. The Labor-H markup exceeds that figure by more than $10 billion. So Democrats must attract enough votes to pass the bill with a veto-proof majority if they are to prevail.

Experts say that Obey has few incentives to offer Republicans. (Obey’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

“Obviously, Democrats must strike some compromise in order to get the budget moving, especially if it includes new progressive priorities,” says independent political analyst Nicholas Beaudrot. “So the question is, ‘What sort of compromise do you want to make?’ ”

Killing Title V might be the stick part of a carrot-and-stick strategy by the Democrats. Because $50 million of federal abstinence money will dry up on June 30, the promise of an additional $28 million for CBAE might seem especially attractive to Republican proponents of abstinence-only education.

Even opponents of abstinence-only education might concede that a few extra million for abstinence education is a small price to pay for easing the passage of a very important domestic spending bill that contains a lot of spending that’s important to Democrats.

Yet, principle is at stake here. Few people realize that the CBAE program promulgates out-and-out quackery and barely disguised religious dogma. These programs don’t just encourage students to remain abstinent as teenagers. By law, they are required to teach “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity,” among many other stipulations. In other words, the program must teach that all sexual activity outside of marriage, even between consenting adults, violates some nebulous “expected standard.”

Federally funded abstinence programs must teach the “the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity”–regardless of whether those gains are real. In an Orwellian twist, the government doesn’t care what educators promise kids as long as they’re told that abstinence is good for them. Some programs promise integrity, purity, self-esteem. Others say there’s a causal link between staying abstinent and being happily married. None of these claims has been substantiated by independent research.

Programs must also teach that “that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects,” again irrespective of any evidence. CBAE grantees don’t have the option of leaving out a core tenet if they don’t find enough evidence to support it. All eight of the core tenets must be taught.

Leveille argues that the current abstinence guidelines raise a number of troubling civil rights issues including gender discrimination, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and improper insertion of religion into public school curricula. The current guidelines also censor information about birth control and STD protection, except to point out the failure rates of contraception. “Information on contraceptives, if included, must be age-appropriate, medically accurate, and presented only as it supports the abstinence message being presented,” reads one of the official guidelines for CBAE curriculum development.

These programs are depriving students of basic medical information that they will need when they become sexually active, in marriage or otherwise. For gay and lesbian students, the logical upshot of abstinence-until-marriage programs is that they are never allowed to have sex–since sex is only allowed within marriage, and marriage is only between a man and a woman.

The House Committee on Government Reform reviewed the contents of federally funded abstinence programs at the request of Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and published the results of their inquiry in 2004. The investigators found that 11 out of 13 programs contained significant errors or distortions. The report also faulted many of the curricula they reviewed for blurring the line between science and religion and promulgating sexist stereotypes as fact.

The Bush administration has already sunk more than $1 billion into abstinence-only education during its time in office. While no evidence suggests these programs are effective in decreasing teen sexual activity, they are very effective at enriching the administration’s backers on the Religious right.

In their rush to achieve compromise on an important domestic spending bill, Democrats should not lose sight of the ugly reality of abstinence-only education. Having publicly acknowledged the worthlessness of Title V, the Democrats will be hard-pressed to justify giving even more taxpayer dollars to another program based on the same ineffective and prejudicial framework.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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