Back Down the Rabbit Hole: White House Confirms Abstinence-Only Programs May Still Receive Funding

Jodi Jacobson

Yesterday, the White House confirmed that under its plan to fund teen pregnancy prevention programs through community and faith-based programs, "some abstinence-only education could qualify."

During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, then-Candidate Obama stated that he “firmly oppose(d) federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs,” 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."

Yesterday, according to CNN’s political ticker, the White House nonetheless confirmed that under its plan to fund teen pregnancy prevention programs through community and faith-based programs, "some abstinence-only education could qualify."

Color me mystified.

As several experts have noted, focusing on teen pregnancy prevention is one among several critical goals to be achieved through comprehensive sexuality education.  It is, however, not the only one.  Other critical public health and human rights goals include reducing the spread of HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections among adolescents in the United States, addressing violence and sexual coercion among adolescents and young adults, and educating adolescents about how to safeguard their sexual and reproductive health throughout their lifecycles.  Well-designed programs can walk and chew gum at the same time, so to speak, using approaches that reduce teen pregnancy as well as other adverse outcomes of unprotected sexual activity, while also  addressing the health and needs of teens less likely to be involved in activity putting them at risk for pregnancy, such as gay, lesbian and transgender persons.

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Abstinence-only programs teach only abstinence; comprehensive programs teach abstinence as well as other skills, and well-designed programs have been proven not only to delay sexual activity among teens, but also to reduce teen pregnancy rates, the spread of infection and result in many other positive outcomes.  Abstinence-only programs have been widely discredited.

Examples of programs that holistically address sexual and reproductive health among teens abound, and include the "Our Whole Lives" Curriculum created by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA), and other similar tested programs created by experts in sexuality education, examples of which can be found on the websites of Advocates for Youth, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, among others.  The UUA program, Our Whole Lives, for example:

"helps participants make informed and responsible
decisions about their sexual health and behavior. It equips participants with
accurate, age-appropriate information in six subject areas: human development,
relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and
culture. Grounded in a holistic view of sexuality, Our Whole Lives provides not only facts about anatomy and human development, but helps
participants to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand
the spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality. 

The White House plan therefore falls short on several levels.  First, it focuses on one outcome and creates a silo-ed approach to adolescent sexual health education, exactly the oppositive approach to what experience suggests we need to do…ie create more comprehensive, systematic and integrated approaches, not more piecemeal ones. Is it ok if we reduce teen pregnancy, for example, but the same teens are still experiencing high and rising rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections?  Is it ok if younger teens refrain from penile-vaginal intercourse but engage under pressure in oral or anal sex and have no framework either for ensuring they are able to avoid being pressured into unwanted sexual activity or engage in other forms of sex without education or protection?

Ironically the domestic approach is in direct opposition to the integrated approach the President has indicated he intends to take with regard to global health programs, though the details of sexual and reproductive health prevention strategies under this framework have yet to be made clear.

It is clear that politics is at play here, in the guise of an effort to mollify the right.  What is also clear is that teens will pay the price.

We need to educate children and teens on healthy, responsible sexual and reproductive choices to reduce teen pregnancy, reduce infection, reduce unintended pregnancy later in life, address sexual violence and coercion and reduce stigma and discrimation, while putting in place the platform for healthy choices now and into the future.  As the evidence shows, abstinence-only programs are based on selective ignorance and ignorance is not best.   A large gap remains in the President’s budget between knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it.  It is up to Congress and the implementing agencies–and therefore up to advocacy groups and their constituents–to finally fix these problems as the budget is finalized through the appropriations process and as specific guidelines for funding programs are developed.

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