The Obama Mandate: End Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

Jodi Jacobson

Let's get rid of wasteful Washington spending. There's an easy way: zero out funding for abstinence-only programs in the next budget cycle.

Republicans these days are very, very deeply concerned about “wasteful
government spending.”  House Minority Leader John Boehner complained
about wasteful spending in the stimulus.  Congressman Mike Pence of
Indiana stated: “More big government spending…won’t cure what ails the
American economy.”  House Republican Whip Eric Kantor made the rounds
of the Sunday talk shows talking “waste, waste, waste.”  And now,
according to the New York Times, the National Republican Congressional
Committee is launching ads blasting House Democrats on the stimulus
bill, which it ridicules as “chockfull of wasteful Washington

You know what?  I agree.  Let’s get rid of that wasteful Washington spending.

And I have a concrete suggestion that will save over $200 million in
cold hard cash right away, plus billions of dollars in future
healthcare and related economic costs!

Sound too good to be true?  

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Really, it’s not a gimmick.  It’s very simple: We just need to zero out
funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the next budget

These programs don’t work to reduce sexual activity in teens, they
don’t work to reduce sexually transmitted infections and they don’t
work to reduce unintended pregnancies.

What is worse, they waste money both on the front end and the back end:
The failure of these programs to effectively contribute to preventing
unintended pregnancies and infections from the outset actually costs
more money in the long run.  In 2004, for example, teen childbearing in
the United States cost taxpayers at least $9.1 billion, never mind the
costs of sexually transmitted infections.  So by investing in
abstinence-only programs, taxpayers actually are losing billions at a
rapid clip.

So it’s easy.  Eliminate the funding; we all save money now and money later.  

Given the general concern about wasteful spending, the desire to ensure
the prudent investments of taxpayer funds in ways that yield positive
benefits, concerns about rising health care costs, and the
now-overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only programs don’t work, one
might assume it will be easy to reach bipartisan agreement that abstinence-only programs, like
the bridges to nowhere of the past,  should
just be cut.  No bickering, no posturing…pure and simple.  Should be

We will soon find out.

Given they control the White House and Congress, the ball actually
is in the Democrats’ court for now.  Several observers have suggested
it may be too late to remove funding for abstinence-only from the
Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 appropriations bill, which has yet to be passed
and which will likely be rolled into a giant omnibus bill to be dealt
with by Congress.  (Although given their concerns, perhaps the Republicans will offer an amendment to take it out?)

But President Obama is expected to release his first federal budget
request, for FY 2010, at the end of February, and the pressure is on to
eliminate ab-only funding in this next fiscal cycle.  A number of
leading advocacy groups, including Advocates for Youth and the
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US
(SIECUS) have
launched campaigns urging President Obama to do just that.  Both point to promises made by Obama during the campaign and
in his inaugural speech to put an end to these programs, and to ensure
evidence drives public policy.  (To take action see Advocates for Youth
here, and SIECUS here).

Candidate Obama, for example, “firmly oppose(d) federal funding for
abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.”  He also declared support for
“comprehensive sex education that is age-appropriate,” and asserted
that providing “science-based sex education in schools [is] the right
thing to do.”  As a Senator, he was a co-sponsor of the Responsible
Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would provide funding for
comprehensive, medically accurate sex education, and the Prevention
First Act which supports efforts to reduce unintended pregnancy and
increase access to contraceptive services and information.  Moreover,
during the transition, a Congressional liaison from the President-Elect’s transition team reportedly communicated
directly to congressional leaders Obama’s firm opposition to continued funding for abstinence-only
programs, expressing again his full support for comprehensive

Still, many advocates want Obama to make this crystal clear when he releases his budget and not, according to fears expressed by some, just give "broad guidance to Congress" as he did with the stimulus package.   They want the White House to make its priorities known.  James Wagoner,
President of Advocates for Youth, notes that:

“What President Obama does on
abstinence-only-until-marriage funding in his first budget will be the
flagship signal for young people regarding the President’s credibility
on reproductive and sexual health issues.  Obama was explicitly supportive of
comprehensive sex education and science-based approaches to public
policy during his campaign.  This budget must zero out abstinence-only
funding.  It simply has to go.”

The majority of Americans apparently agree with Wagoner and the
President on comprehensive programming.  According to a study by
researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, originally published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the majority of American
adults (80.4 percent) favor a balanced approach to sex education in
schools, regardless of their political leanings.  The survey gauged
strong support for teaching children about both abstinence and other
ways of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  And,
as Wagoner points out, support for the stimulus package proposed by the
President polled 20 points higher among 18 to 29 year olds then the
rest of the population, indicating the very high level of political support among
young adult voters for “doing the right thing.”

And here is where it gets a little complicated.

First of all, under the Bush Administration, funding for
abstinence-only-until-marriage programs rose
from $97.5 million in 2000
to $215 million in 2008.  The funding kept rising, even when Democrats
were in control of Congress, and even after numerous studies, including
a federally-funded evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research
and published in April 2007, showed that these programs were
ineffective.  The Mathematica study reviewed four carefully selected
abstinence-only education programs, and showed that youth enrolled in
the programs were no more likely than those not in the programs to
delay sexual initiation, to have fewer sexual partners, or to abstain
entirely from sex.

Still, the programs retained strong support from powerful
organizations, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
and from a wide array of conservative evangelical groups receiving
federal funds to promote abstinence-only.  As a result, some members of
Congress, including Congressman David Obey, Chair of the Appropriations
Committee, have been reluctant to cut such funding in the past.  Obey,
for one, comes from a heavily Catholic district near Milwaukee.  Absent a clear message from the White House that the days of abstinence-only are over, some fear that members like Obey may not remove this funding from the House appropriations bill. 

And if
the stimulus debacle was any indication, we can anticipate
that, despite their concern for waste in government, at least a few
Republican leaders will try to twist the debate on funding of
abstinence-only programs until the facts lay in tatters on the green
room floors of cable stations across the land.  If that happens, then other members, even Democrats, may feel pressured to
act against both the evidence and that ever-invoked "will of the
American people" just to mollify the loudest in the farthest right.

In high school, the extent of Max’s sexual health education was an abstinence-only program that succeeded only in alienating him by refusing to provide him, as a gay person and young person, with the information and tools for a healthy sex life. Watch part 2 of Max’s story.

Because of these complicated politics, nothing is guaranteed.  To
ensure the House does the right thing, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a strong
supporter of evidence-based programs, needs to use her leadership role
and make clear to her members from the outset that the goal is to end funding for these
programs once and for all. 

Second, there is no line item for comprehensive sexual health education
in the federal budget, and bills proactively supporting these programs
have yet to be passed.  Related programs also desperately need
additional funding.  According to Bill Smith, Vice President for Public Policy at SIECUS:

“The challenge is not just about getting rid of funding for abstinence-only programs, it’s also about fulfilling the committment to fund comprehensive sex education, increasing HIV prevention and Title X funding and about increased funding for the broader reproductive and sexual health services needed by people throughout this country.”

So to really fulfill his own mandate, Obama has to cut out money for programs that don’t work and proactively fund
programs that do work, and which people urgently need, like family
planning, sexual health education, HIV prevention and the rest. 

For now, however, abstinence-only remains a boondoggle and a dangerous
one at that.  Originally reported by Joe Sonka on Amplify, an Advocates
for Youth site, and then on Rewire, one such program
supported by $800,000 of your tax dollars pays a clown with dubious
credentials (ok, I admit I do not know the full curriculum at clown
school) to teach adolescents about "saving sex for marriage."  Great
for that first birthday party, but not so much for safer sex, unless he
teaches creative use of the balloons.  And even then I am not so sure. 
But clearly the content of this program was embarrassing enough that
once exposed, both the clown, and Elizabeth’s New Life Center, lucky
recipient of all these funds, removed information regarding the
program from their respective web sites.

And while the clown example may provide fodder for late-night
television comedy, other programs engage in dangerous reinforcement of
attitudes and behaviors that denigrate women, blacks, hispanics and homosexuals.  For example, another program
uncovered by Amplify
, again in Ohio, involved a video role-play of four
teens at a party, one of whom, a female, offers to drive her drunk
(male) friend home.  When he rapes her, the role-play blames her for
“putting herself in a risky situation” and for “having a reputation,”
suggesting her claims of rape are suspect.  So this program actually blames the victim for the rape,
and dismisses the guy’s behavior as a “boys will be boys” escapade. 
Apparently strength of conviction by the organization running this
program about the video dissipated as fast as you could say “blog
post,” because once again, the video got changed right after the
program was exposed.  Shows you what a little “transparency” might find.

Reinforcement of prejudicial attitudes, bias and discrimination based
on race and sexual identity also are rife within these programs, many
of which are subject to little if any oversight for content.  A report by
Legal Momentum
, for example, found that many federally funded
abstinence-only programs discourage condom use, distort reproductive
health information, and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.  “Many
programs also perpetuate sexist and racist stereotypes about women of
color,” adds the report.  

One example is ’The Choice Game’ which:

"Has a ‘Midwest School version’ that features 95 percent
white students and an ‘urban school version,’ featuring ‘55%
African-American actors, 24% Hispanic actors and the remaining are
Caucasian.’  The urban version contains stereotypes of African-American
women as sexually aggressive and as drug users, and of African-American
men as likely to end up in jail.  In sharp contrast, the Midwest
materials depict white students working to maintain their ‘traditional

Reports by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union
reveal similar findings.  And a 2004 report by the House Committee
on Oversight and Government Reform
found that

“over 80% of the abstinence-only curricula, used by
over two-thirds of grantees [reviewed] in 2003, contain false,
misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health.” 

In short, the programs reviewed by the Committee took an
industrial-size eraser to the line between separation of church and
state, relying on heavy does of prosyletizing and religious content to
get their ineffective messages across.

Finally, a report by Douglas Kirby, a Senior Research Scientist at ETR Associates conducted for the National Campaign to Reduce Teen Pregnancy stated that:

At present, there does not exist any strong evidence that
any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return
to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners. In addition,
there is strong evidence from multiple randomized trials demonstrating
that some abstinence programs chosen for evaluation because they were
believed to be promising actually had no impact on teen sexual
behavior. That is, they did not delay the initiation of sex, increase
the return to abstinence or decrease the number of sexual partners. At
the same time, they did not have a negative impact on the use of
condoms or other contraceptives.  Studies of abstinence programs have
not produced sufficient evidence to justify their widespread

What more do we need to know to avoid putting several hundred million more dollars through a giant shredder?

In this new era of citizen participation, accountability, and
respect for  evidence and human rights, it is up to us to ensure our elected officials get rid of this particular
barrel of pork.

"On one hand," says Marcela Howell, Vice President of Policy and Communications at Advocates for Youth, 

"We have a Democratic President who has
pledged to get rid of this spending.  We have a majority of Democrats
in Congress who have publicly stated opposition to this funding, and we
have a Republican party on the hunt for wasteful spending.  It seems like an easy decision.”

It should be easy.  But to be honest, given this situation, if we can’t mobilize enough grassroots strength to ensure the
President and Congress get rid of these funds, bring back the clown
because the joke is on us.

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