President Obama, Sex Education, and Life After Ab-Only

William Smith

President-Elect Obama has pledged to end funding for programs that do not work and, after $1.5 billion in taxpayer money, evidence is clear that abstinence-only programs do not work.

When I began writing this piece,
it was the first time I ever combined the words "President" and
"Obama" as in naming the man: President Obama.  I am
elated and with the election over, it is a time to celebrate. 
It has been eight long years of one disastrous policy after another coming
from the Bush Administration, and for those of us in the weeds trying
to make good sexual and reproductive health policy (and stop the all
too frequent bad policy from getting rammed down our throats), the disaster
has been particularly acute. 

I won’t rehash all the disasters
here, but will focus on the remedy to one of these areas where President
Obama can lead: the restoration of evidence-based programs to provide
sex education, prevent teen pregnancy, and reduce incidence of HIV and
other sexually transmitted diseases. 

First, President Obama must
end the nearly $200 million a year going into abstinence-only-until-marriage
by zeroing it out of the budget he submits to Congress in February. 
He has pledged to end funding for programs that do not work and, after
almost 30 years of federal funding and $1.5 billion in tax payer money,
the evidence is clear that these programs do no work.  The Democratic
Party platform also calls for their end so we have a very clear policy
statement and priority in print.  Many abstinence-only programs
are also homophobic and anti-woman, so it is important to stress these
arguments as well.  And last but not least, the vast majority of
recipients of these dollars are the base of the extreme right wing in
this country.  It is now time to end the gravy train. Doing so
benefits our youth, our communities and oh yeah, incidentally, benefits
the progressive common good against which these same groups, by their
very nature, consistently rail. 

But, ending ab-only has always
been part of a broader vision of what young people really need. 
The other side of this coin, of course, is the second part of what President
Obama must do: establish the first ever federal funding stream for a
comprehensive approach to sex education.  As a member of the Senate,
Obama was a co-sponsor of the Responsible Education About Life (REAL)
Act and, again, his party’s platform supports a strong move toward
more comprehensive programs because they work.  For example, we
now have the evidence to show that more comprehensive programs do a
better job of helping young people wait to have sex than abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs.  I don’t play chess but I believe that is checkmate. 

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Many groups from the broader
reproductive health community, as well as the HIV/AIDS community, have
assembled requests to the Obama Administration for a new pot of money
to support comprehensive sex education.  We know that is an uphill
request given the budgetary situation but it must be a priority nonetheless
and cost-savings from cut programs must be redirected.   

Of course, President Obama
cannot do this alone.  His budget will send the strongest of signals
to Congress to follow suit.  But will they?  It is a real
question.  Even the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry’s
lobbying arm, the National Abstinence Education Association, pondered
in their day-after-the-election lament: "Remember that naysayers
expected abstinence education to go
away when leadership in the Congress first changed from Republican to
Democrat two years ago. But it didn’t." 

Indeed.  So, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid will also
play key roles in getting this done by exercising discipline over wayward
Members and remembering the platform that brought about the most momentous
political shift in our lifetime.   

Thankfully, the ascendency
of Barack Obama and a new agenda represents the repudiation of the culture
wars that have dominated and impoverished our domestic political discourse
since Reagan.  Make no mistake:  these same culture wars are
embodied in the work of most abstinence-only-until-marriage programs
and their many providers.  It is no wonder that they are facing
repudiation from at least half the states across the country that no
longer even take the money to do these junk programs.  

Let history be our guide. 
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were part of the socially conservative
Republican "Contract With America" when they swept into power in
the early 1990’s.  President Obama, let’s make a clean start. 
It is a new day in America and change has indeed come.  Let it
include a change in how we empower young people to make responsible
decisions.  Let it start with an end to extreme abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs and a renewed commitment to our youth by investing in comprehensive
sex education. 

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