President’s Veto Kills Dems’ Ab-Only Fix

Wendy Norris

In one fell swoop, President Bush tells children he won't ensure they receive health care - but he will make sure they're at risk for sexually transmitted infections as a result of the abstinence-only programs his administration will continue to fund.

Proponents of comprehensive sex education scored a small victory yesterday when the U.S. Senate stripped a $100 million provision to fund a controversial abstinence-only grant program that was tacked onto the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill.

But the celebration will be short-lived as President Bush renewed his vow late Friday to veto the compromise bill that extends health care coverage to more children.

The SCHIP bill add-on, known by its none-descript name Title V, Section 510, is one of three established federal funding streams for abstinence-only programs and the only one in which states have decision-making authority on grantees. The other two money pots — Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) and Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) — are direct federal grants to school districts, health departments, and nonprofit organizations and are not affected by the Senate's action.

While Congress wrangled with the federal budget over the summer, the Title V program was re-upped on an emergency 3-month basis through September 30. In the meantime, the program funding renewal was slipped into an early House version of SCHIP, which was also hotly contested. The reauthorization would have provided a pool of $50 million each in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 for states to distribute to community-based abstinence programs.

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Reproductive health advocates condemned the funding proposal as throwing good money at bad programs that endanger young people's lives with inaccurate information and heavy-handed moralizing.

However, the add-on also attempted to deal with some of those serious shortcomings by requiring medically and scientifically accurate curricula, broadening the lessons to include discussions on birth control methods, and mandating that the programs prove they reduce pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS rates.

The new guidelines were designed to counterbalance political interference with the program by Bush Administration appointees.

In 2005, the White House shifted oversight of Title V from the Maternal and Child Health bureau to the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, which Advocates for Youth calls a more ideologically conservative division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

That shift also meant that newly funded Title V programs must adhere to a strict eight-point definition of abstinence education that reflects ultra-conservative viewpoints and minimizes accepted public health and social science research. Consequently, eight states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin) have refused millions of dollars in federal funds rather than capitulate to non-scientific standards and ignore the need to provide contraception information to young people.

Red tape and bureaucratic bullying aside, abstinence-only programs have also begun to fall out of favor.

Recent independent analyses of abstinence-only programs by the Government Accountability Office, Mathematica Policy Research [PDF] and others have repeatedly found grim problems in the programs' touted effectiveness — from a lack of scientifically-accurate curriculum, little oversight, and the inability to demonstrate a direct, causal reduction in teen sexual activity. A first-of-its-kind study of teenagers also found widely varying views on abstinence and virginity in stark contrast to the messages intended.

But those criticisms haven't put much of a dent in lawmakers with a penchant for pandering to conservative voters.

Since 1982, Congress has appropriated an estimated $1.5 billion for abstinence-only programs that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan) describes as "a colossal failure." Dingell's committee co-chair Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) said during an interview on Marketplace in July:

Abstinence-only education doesn't work. A number of studies, as well as common sense, have shown that over the years. So Congress is pouring millions of dollars into this program that's just a waste of money.

Earlier in the spring, Dingell and DeGette successfully eliminated Title V funding from a spending bill before their committee.

But to the great consternation of comprehensive sex education proponents, Title V's sister program, Community-Based Abstinence Education, received a large cash infusion from the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations to the tune of $141 million, a 25 percent increase over last year's budget. Rep. David Obey (D-WI), who serves as the subcommittee chair and leads the powerful House Appropriations Committee, argued that the move was a necessary evil to placate conservative lawmakers in order to make the larger spending bill veto-proof.

So in essence, the current de-funding of Title V may have little effect on federal financial support of abstinence-only education while effectively eliminating the states' only direct avenue for approving and supervising the no-sex-until-marriage curricula presented by grantees to young citizens.

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