Why Are We Still Funding Abstinence-Only Programming?

Mary Beth Hastings

I'm at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna and I'm wondering why the Obama Administration is still funding failed Bush Administration "prevention" programs?

Rewire is covering issues being discussed at the International AIDS Conference underway in Vienna this week.

It seems you can’t keep a bad idea down. Even though the Obama administration has pledged that science will finally trump ideology when it comes to global AIDS prevention, we recently learned that U.S. funding for failed prevention programs is continuing. 

Obama’s commitment to evidence seemed particularly promising in eliminating the programs that promote only the “Abstain and Be faithful” messages (dubbed “AB programs”) without giving any information about female and male condoms. But just two months ago, the U.S. government called for proposals to implement AB-only programs in Nigeria for youth and couples. 

Get ready for the very ironic title of the government’s request: “Providing Quality Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Prevention, Care, and Treatment Services in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the request in May.

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Within the prevention section, the CDC asks for development of AB-only programs for young people and couples, and coordination of the “Abstinence and Be Faithful Initiative.” It also sets targets for how many people should be reached with abstinence-focused interventions. Apparently, they think the “comprehensive prevention” part comes in the brief mention of “targeted interventions among high-risk groups.”  We can guess that this might be part that (probably) includes condoms, as it targets sex workers, men who have sex with men, and truck drivers –although it’s a mystery to me why it isn’t spelled out that these programs should include condoms.

Here’s the thing that U.S. decision makers still don’t seem to get: giving condoms to truck drivers and AB messages to “regular” couples is NOT comprehensive prevention. Marketing female condoms to sex workers while young people can’t get access to them is the same rights-violating, health-endangering idiocy that has been failing for the past decade. 

This is not hard to figure out. If you give condoms only to groups thought of by society as “promiscuous,” what do you think will happen to a woman who insists on condom use with her husband that she suspects of cheating?  If you do not provide information about using female and male condoms to young people, even if they successfully delay sex for years, how do you expect them to know how to use them once they start having sex?

“Comprehensive prevention” is not a country-level concept—it is an individual-level concept. Everyone has the right to, and the need for, full information about how to be healthy. That’s the only way it makes sense.

Each and every person served by PEPFAR prevention programs should receive full information about how to use condoms, and should have access to female and male condoms.  Instead of pouring scarce resources in programs we know don’t work, we have got to start only funding true comprehensive prevention.

Here at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, so many activists are talking and protesting about funding, demanding world leaders not let up on funding the global AIDS response.  We’re taking it a step further and asking that world leaders fund programs that work—because especially in this context, it is criminal for the U.S. to fund anything but the best in HIV prevention.

News Law and Policy

Federal Judge Guts Florida GOP’s Omnibus Anti-Choice Law

Teddy Wilson

"For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” said Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “We may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need. No one should have their basic health care taken away."

A federal judge on Thursday permanently blocked two provisions of a Florida omnibus anti-choice law that banned Planned Parenthood from receiving state funds and required annual inspections of all clinics that provide abortion services, reported the Associated Press.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued an order in June to delay implementation of the law.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that a government cannot prohibit indirectly—by withholding otherwise-available public funds—conduct that the government could not constitutionally prohibit directly,” Hinkle wrote in the 25-page ruling.  

Thursday’s decision came after Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s administration decided not to pursue further legal action to defend the law, and filed a joint motion to end the litigation.

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Hinkle issued a three page decision making the injunction permanent.

HB 1411, sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton (R-Lakeland), was passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in March.

The judge’s ruling nixed provisions in the law that banned state funding of abortion care and required yearly clinic inspections. Other provisions of the law that remain in effect include additional reporting requirements for abortion providers, redefining “third trimester,” and revising the care of fetal remains.

The GOP-backed anti-choice law has already had a damaging effect in Palm Beach County, where Planned Parenthood was forced to end a program that focused on teen dropout prevention.

Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said in a statement that the ruling was a “victory for thousands of Floridians” who rely on the organization for reproductive health care.

“For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” Zdravecky said. “We may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need. No one should have their basic health care taken away.”

A spokesperson for Scott told Reuters that the administration is “reviewing” the decision.

Commentary Contraception

The Promotion of Long-Acting Contraceptives Must Confront History and Center Patient Autonomy

Jamila Taylor

While some long-acting reversible contraceptive methods were used to undermine women of color's reproductive freedom, those methods still hold the promise of reducing unintended pregnancy among those most at risk.

Since long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), including intrauterine devices and hormonal contraceptive implants, are among the most effective means of pregnancy prevention, many family planning and reproductive health providers are increasingly promoting them, especially among low-income populations.

But the promotion of LARCs must come with an acknowledgment of historical discriminatory practices and public policy related to birth control. To improve contraceptive access for low-income women and girls of color—who bear the disproportionate effects of unplanned pregnancy—providers and advocates must work to ensure that the reproductive autonomy of this population is respected now, precisely because it hasn’t been in the past.

For Black women particularly, the reproductive coercion that began during slavery took a different form with the development of modern contraceptive methods. According to Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, “The movement to expand women’s reproductive options was marked with racism from its very inception in the early part of [the 20th] century.” Decades later, government-funded family planning programs encouraged Black women to use birth control; in some cases, Black women were coerced into being sterilized.

In the 1990s, the contraceptive implant Norplant was marketed specifically to low-income women, especially Black adults and teenage girls. After a series of public statements about the benefits of Norplant in reducing pregnancy among this population, policy proposals soon focused on ensuring usage of the contraceptive method. Federal and state governments began paying for Norplant and incentivizing its use among low-income women while budgets for social support programs were cut. Without assistance, Norplant was not an affordable option, with the capsules costing more than $300 and separate, expensive costs for implantation and removal.

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Soon, Norplant was available through the Medicaid program. Some states introduced (ultimately unsuccessful) bills that would give cash rewards to entice low-income women on public assistance into using it; a few, such as Tennessee and Washington state, required that women receiving various forms of public assistance get information about Norplant. After proposing a bill to promote the use of Norplant in his state in 1994, a Connecticut legislator made the comment, “It’s far cheaper to give you money not to have kids than to give you money to have kids.” By that year, as Roberts writes, states had spent $34 million on Norplant-related care, much of it for women on Medicaid. Policymakers thought it was completely legitimate and cost-effective to control the reproduction of low-income women.

However, promoting this method among low-income Black women and adolescents was problematic. Racist, classist ideology dictating that this particular population of women shouldn’t have children became the basis for public policy. Even though coercive practices in reproductive health were later condemned, these practices still went on to shape cultural norms around race and gender, as well as medical practice.

This history has made it difficult to move beyond negative perceptions, and even fear, of LARCs, health care, and the medical establishment among some women of color. And that’s why it’s so important to ensure informed consent when advocating for effective contraceptive methods, with choice always at the center.

But how can policies and health-care facilities promote reproductive autonomy?

Health-care providers must deal head on with the fact that many contemporary women have concerns about LARCs being recommended specifically to low-income women and women of color. And while this is part of the broader effort to make LARCs more affordable and increasingly available to communities that don’t have access to them, mechanisms should be put in place to address this underlying issue. Requiring cultural competency training that includes information on the history of coercive practices affecting women of color could help family planning providers understand this concern for their patients.

Then, providers and health systems must address other barriers that make it difficult for women to access LARCs in particular. LARCs can be expensive in the short term, and complicated billing and reimbursement practices in both public and private insurance confuse women and providers. Also, the full cost associated with LARC usage isn’t always covered by insurance.

But the process shouldn’t end at eliminating barriers. Low-income Black women and teens must receive comprehensive counseling for contraception to ensure informed choice—meaning they should be given information on the full array of methods. This will help them choose the method that best meets their needs, while also promoting reproductive autonomy—not a specific contraceptive method.

Clinical guidelines for contraception must include detailed information on informed consent, and choice and reproductive autonomy should be clearly outlined when family planning providers are trained.

It’s crucial we implement these changes now because recent investments and advocacy are expanding access to LARCs. States are thinking creatively about how to reduce unintended pregnancy and in turn reduce Medicaid costs through use of LARCs. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative has been heralded as one of the most effective in helping women access LARCs. Since 2008, more than 30,000 women in Colorado have chosen LARCs as the result of the program. Provider education, training, and contraceptive counseling have also been increased, and women can access LARCs at reduced costs.

The commitment to LARCs has apparently yielded major returns for Colorado. Between 2009 and 2013, the abortion rate among teenagers older than 15 in Colorado dropped by 42 percent. Additionally, the birth rate for young women eligible for Medicaid dropped—resulting in cost savings of up to an estimated $111 million in Medicaid-covered births. LARCs have been critical to these successes. Public-private partnerships have helped keep the program going since 2015, and states including Delaware and Iowa have followed suit in efforts to experience the same outcomes.

Recognizing that prevention is a key component to any strategy addressing a public health concern, those strategies must be rooted in ensuring access to education and comprehensive counseling so that women and teens can make the informed choices that are best for them. When women and girls are given the tools to empower themselves in decision making, the results are positive—not just for what the government spends or does not spend on social programs, but also for the greater good of all of us.

The history of coercion undermining reproductive freedom among women and girls of color in this country is an ugly one. But this certainly doesn’t have to dictate how we move forward.

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