Features » March 7, 2009
Real Sex Ed Returns
But will Democrats axe abstinence-only?
Teen birth rates were particularly high in Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas. In all three states, if sex education is taught in schools at all, it must focus on abstinence.
As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to eliminate ineffective federal programs. Now that he’s president, many Democrats know where he should start.
The largest federal abstinence-until-marriage programs began 12 years ago when Republicans inserted funding for them into the 1996 welfare reform act. Under the Bush administration, the programs thrived, growing from $80 million in 2001 to $176 million in 2008. Bush increased funding for one abstinence program in 2005 even after it received a “results not demonstrated” rating from Bush’s own Office of Management and Budget. Still, the last few years have brought good news to advocates for comprehensive sex education, even before the November election.
Change on the way?
In the research arena, a consensus is emerging that abstinence-plus programs–those that also include information about contraception–outperform those focusing exclusively on abstinence. Research on virginity pledges published in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics is the fifth major study since 2007 to conclude that abstinence-until-marriage approaches either have little effect on teen behavior or fare worse than comprehensive sex education programs in changing behavior.
State-level politics on teen pregnancy are also shifting. Despite budget pressures, half of the states refuse federal Title V block grants that fund abstinence-until-marriage programs. The grants require programs to teach individuals up to age 29 that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”
Another shift is that the nation now has a president with a record of supporting comprehensive sex education. In 2007, as senator, Obama co-sponsored the Responsible Education About Life Act, which would have provided grants to states to provide abstinence-plus education. (The bill died in committee.)
Blue Dog politics
The Democrats’ big tent could limit how far they push on abstinence policies.
Since Democrats took control in 2006, Congress has yet to cut even a dollar of abstinence education funding. Democrats have treated abstinence programs as a bargaining chip in negotiations over health and education funding, while Republicans have protected them as a core priority.
For example, even though the Title V abstinence program expired in 2003, Republicans have gotten temporary renewals by attaching the program to medical assistance for welfare-to-work recipients.
Congressional Democrats have supported ongoing funding for Community-Based Abstinence Education – the largest federal abstinence program – in exchange for Republican votes on a multi-agency appropriations bill that funds labor- and health-related programs. In the current Congress, the swing voters on sex education funding will likely be the Blue Dogs – House Democrats from conservative districts.
Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Zack Space (Ohio) and Jim Matheson (Utah) represent such districts. They also serve on one of the House subcommittees that oversee abstinence-only funding. In These Times called their offices three times for their positions on funding for abstinence-until-marriage and comprehensive sex education, but their offices had not responded by press time.
None of the three were among the 164 co-sponsors of last year’s Prevention First Act, which would have provided new funding for comprehensive sex education. The bill died in their subcommittee.
Abstinence-only activists may be targeting the Blue Dogs for support. Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, describes her lobbying strategy this way: “Since many abstinence-education providers and abstinence-education supporting parents voted for Obama and the current Congress, cutting abstinence education funding could certainly alienate these constituencies.”
Asked to assess the prospects of a policy shift, Heather Boonstra, a senior policy associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), a research organization supportive of comprehensive sex education, says, “I don’t think that it’s a given. There are promising signs, but, of course, the administration can only go so far because it will require an act of Congress to either get rid of these abstinence-only programs entirely or to fund more comprehensive approaches.”
Battle of two budgets
The Obama administration and Congress do not have long to ponder a decision on continued abstinence funding.
For fiscal year 2009, the previous Congress passed a continuing resolution that included full funding through March 6 for the Community-Based Abstinence Education program. The second major abstinence program, Title V block grants, has funding under a separate law through June 30.
But the Democrats may get tough, says William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Departing from their previous bargains, Democratic lawmakers included money for welfare-to-work medical assistance in the current version of the stimulus package, but nothing for Title V abstinence block grants. “I just can’t imagine that Republicans will hold out on the stimulus bill [to retain abstinence funding],” Smith says.
For its part, the Obama administration will release its proposed fiscal year 2010 budget this spring. In January, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Associated Press that he would not discuss what the president would propose.
But Marcela Howell, vice president of policy for Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that favors comprehensive sex education, notes that a group of reproductive health organizations met with the president’s transition team and received assurances that the administration favors funding a comprehensive approach to sex education.
Abstinence-only proponents are not giving up. In November, roughly 200 to 300 organizations supporting abstinence – including “healthcare providers and schools,” according to Huber – signed a letter to Obama requesting a meeting. Huber says that they have not received a response but will “pursue appropriate channels to communicate our message.”
They also contend that funding for comprehensive sex education already exists in the federal budget. Huber cites a December 2008 report from Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) comparing federal funding for abstinence with a category of programs it called “education and/or awareness about pregnancy and/or STD prevention.” Funding for that category, according to the report, outstripped abstinence funding by nearly two to one.
But Adam Sonfield, a senior public policy associate at AGI, says the report’s analysis is misleading because the second category – “education and/or awareness about pregnancy and/or STD prevention” – is not comprehensive sex education. For example, 79 percent of the money that HHS includes in that category is actually welfare reform money that states can use to “reduce incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancy,” according to the report’s appendix. Says Sonfield, “There’s no reason to think that any of this is dedicated to comprehensive sex education.”
Several outcomes are possible for the budgets, including eliminating abstinence funding altogether, changing existing abstinence programs to be more flexible (by dropping the requirement that grantees teach abstinence until marriage) or creating a parallel track of dedicated comprehensive sex education funding while leaving abstinence programs in place.
Reversing worsening trends
The worst outcome of upcoming congressional struggles would be the elimination of all money for teen pregnancy prevention, says Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unintended Pregnancy, which favors an abstinence-plus approach.
“Particularly given that the teen birth rate is now on the increase for the first time in 15 years, it seems a particularly poor time to consider not funding any approach to preventing teen pregnancy,” he says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Jan. 7 that teen birth rates increased in more than half of U.S. states between 2005 and 2006, and rose overall nationally for the first time in 15 years. Rates were particularly high in the South and Southwest, with the highest recorded in Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas. A January AGI analysis found that in all three states, if sex education is taught in school districts at all, it must focus on abstinence.
Even if the new administration and Congress were to embrace comprehensive sex education, the upward spike in the pregnancy rate might not turn around immediately. But those who advocate a new course say that for today’s children – who will, after all, be the adolescents of tomorrow – it would be a sound start.
Says SIECUS’ Smith, “I think we should have every confidence that change is coming in this area.”
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Steve Yoder is a freelance journalist based in Willow, New York.