Bill to Strike Abstinence Earmark from PEPFAR

Naina Dhingra

Breaking News: Today Senators Feinstein and Snowe have introduced legislation to strike the ideological abstinence-until-marriage earmark from PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).

Today, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced groundbreaking legislation, the HIV Prevention Act of 2007, a bill that would remove the ideological 33 percent abstinence-until-marriage earmark from HIV prevention programs in the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The earmark is the primary culprit in denying young people in PEPFAR countries from receiving honest, comprehensive HIV prevention programs. Ten additional Democratic Senators co-sponsored the bill including Senators Clinton, Durbin, and Feingold.

Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the nation's leading medical authority, released a report calling on Congress to remove the harmful abstinence-until-marriage earmark from PEPFAR, stating that "[PEPFAR's] budget allocations have made spending money in a particular way an end in itself rather than a means to an end—in this instance, the vitally important end of saving lives today and in the future."

The HIV Prevention Act of 2007 also allows for greater flexibility within PEPFAR to respond more quickly and specifically to the local epidemic, and supports public health best practices that are tailored to local needs and culture.

Senators Feinstein and Snowe have taken a bold step toward responding to the IOM's call and remedying the harm caused to young people by the abstinence-until-marriage earmark. Hopefully, the Senate will put ideological differences aside and join them in this noble effort.

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News Sexual Health

Texas GOP Lawmakers Divert HIV Funds to Abstinence Education Program

Andrea Grimes

State Rep. Stuart Spitzer said his "goal is for everybody to be abstinent until they’re married." Democrats questioned Spitzer's knowledge about sexual health after he stated that sexual intercourse was the only way to contract STIs.

Texas Republicans voted to divert funds from an HIV screening program into abstinence education Tuesday night, during an often tense and uncomfortable debate that got too personal for some lawmakers.

Texas has the third-highest HIV infection rate in the country as well as the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate and highest repeat teen pregnancy rate, but Republican state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, a surgeon from North Texas, said his “goal is for everybody to be abstinent until they’re married.”

“My goal is for everybody to be HIV/AIDS free,” countered state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), who peppered Spitzer with questions about Texas’ high HIV and STI rates, and opposed Spitzer’s plan to move $3 million from an HIV and STI screening program into abstinence education.

Spitzer’s amendment—which passed largely along party lines, with support from his fellow Republicans—to the state’s $210 billion biennial budget would increase its annual abstinence education budget from around $5 million per year for the next two years, to more than $8 million for each year. The HIV/STI prevention program from which Spitzer’s amendment removes funds had an annual budget allocation of around $191 million.

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During the debate, Spitzer admitted that Texas’ abstinence education program “may not be working well” in light of the state’s high teen pregnancy and STI rates, but argued that because of the HIV/STI program’s already larger budget, it could spare the funds for abstinence. Texas’ House Democrats said that more money for abstinence education would do little to improve Texans’ sexual health.

One Democrat, Rep. Harold Dutton (Houston), even asked Spitzer if he himself had personal experience with abstinence, tipping off an awkward public debate about Spitzer’s sex life.

“I’ve had sex with one woman, and that’s my wife,” said Spitzer, who stated that he was a virgin at age 29 when he got married, and that his decision not to have premarital sex enabled him to become a surgeon and state representative.

Dutton then asked if Spitzer had tried to have sex with anyone else before he married his wife, implying that Spitzer’s abstinence may not have been due entirely to personal choice and sending the Texas House chamber into an uproar.

Other Democrats questioned Spitzer’s knowledge about sexual health after he stated that sexual intercourse was the only way to contract STIs.

“If you think you can’t get an STD without having sex, maybe we need to educate you on how to get STDs,” said Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth).

Spitzer later said on his Facebook page that he is “perfectly able to speak about what activities put you at risk of STD/AIDS. That is why I support abstinence education.”

Over the course of an 18-hour budget debate, Texas lawmakers also voted to bar abortion “affiliates” from providing sex education materials in schools in an ongoing effort to target Planned Parenthood.

The Texas house will vote to approve its version of the biennial budget one more time before sending it to the state senate, which will propose its own version of the budget. Discrepancies in the two versions will then be ironed out in a conference committee later in the legislative session.

News Law and Policy

Louisiana Committee Passes Bill to Ban Abortion Providers From Guiding Public School Discussions on Sex Ed

Teddy Wilson

HB 305 would prohibit abortion providers and their affiliates from providing sex education materials, or speaking about sexual health, to public school students in the state.

A Louisiana legislative committee passed a bill Wednesday that would ban abortion providers and organizations with direct ties to clinics from providing sex education materials, or speaking about sexual health, to students in the state’s public schools. Supporters of the bill claim the purpose of such a policy is to prevent the promotion of abortion in schools. However, opponents say that it would prevent students from receiving medically accurate information about sexual health.

HB 305, sponsored by Rep. Frank Hoffmann (R-West Monroe), would prohibit organizations like Planned Parenthood from guiding discussions on sexuality in classrooms in the state. The ban would apply to all public schools and charter schools that receive state funding. Hospitals would be exempt from the proposed law.

In its original draft, the bill would have prevented such organizations from providing instructional materials on any topic, but an amendment submitted by Hoffmann narrowed the language of the bill to ban only materials about “human sexuality or family planning.”

During a press conference announcing the bill, Hoffmann, standing next to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who supports the bill, said that if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned Louisiana already has a law in place that would immediately outlaw abortion. “But until then, we want to make it as difficult as possible for the people doing that. This bill takes another step in that by not allowing these in-services in schools,” said Hoffmann.

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The bill is supported by Louisiana Right to Life and the Bioethics Defense Fund. Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel in the New Orleans office of Bioethics Defense Fund, assisted Hoffmann in drafting the bill.

Benjamin Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, said in a statement that the bill is needed “to reassure Louisiana families that their children in state-funded elementary and secondary schools are not being targeted by individuals and organizations who have financial incentives to sell abortion.”

Raegan Carter, director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, told Rewire that her organization opposes the bill because state law already prohibits sex education in public schools from including information about abortion or contraception. “We are already in compliance with that law,” said Carter. “All of our health education material when we go into the schools are compliant.”

Carter also noted that Louisiana has some of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and teen pregnancies in the country. “Planned Parenthood is one of the leading national providers of comprehensive sex education, and if we are eliminated from schools then our youth who need this information the most will not be able to receive the information,” said Carter.

According to the federal Office of Adolescent Health, Louisiana has the sixth highest rate of teenage births in the nation and the eighth highest rate of teenage pregnancies. A 2012 annual report by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals found that from 2008 until 2012, the state ranked in the top five each year for cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. One-third of sexual transmitted diseases in the state were reported among those from the ages of 15 to 19.

Under current state law, each individual school district has control over the sex education curriculum provided to students. There are no standardized requirements, but schools must emphasize abstinence as part of the sex education curriculum. Carter says that if Planned Parenthood and other organizations are prohibited from providing sex education, some schools may not have the resources to provide sex education at all.

“Planned Parenthood does not promote abortion in any of our health education materials,” said Carter. “Our sex education programs are age appropriate and medically accurate. We implement programs that are proven effective by the Centers for Disease Control and the federal Office of Adolescent Health.”