News Law and Policy

Trump’s HHS Turns Teen Pregnancy Grant Announcement Into ‘Political Theater’

Erica Martinson

The move by HHS seems to pit nonprofits and community organizations against each other—some left wondering if they would ever get federal funding.

The Trump administration has released a list of more than $19 million in federal grants for teen pregnancy prevention initiatives that the administration said it would have dispersed, if not for lawsuits from reproductive rights advocates.

The move by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) seems to pit nonprofits and community organizations against each other—some left wondering if they would ever get federal funding, others saying the administration was putting on a show, masking an ongoing effort to promote abstinence-focused sexual education programs against the will of the U.S. Congress.

The fight centers around grant funding for the federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which Congress established in 2010 to fund “medically accurate and age appropriate programs” according to the HHS website. There are 84 grants to various communities and nonprofits. In a separate matter, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials tried to curtail those already-awarded grants last year. Courts rebuffed that effort.

Then in April, the Trump administration changed the criteria for the grant programs. Opponents of the move said it was meant to shift funding to abstinence-focused programs favored by foes of reproductive rights.

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Pro-choice activists sued and won: In August, two courts said the new criteria didn’t match the requirements Congress set out for the “evidenced-based” program, ruling in lawsuits brought by Planned Parenthood of New York City and the government of Multnomah County in Oregon. The courts barred HHS officials from distributing the grants as planned.

Instead, HHS issued an announcement last week listing 41 organizations that would have received grants—most in the range of $500,000—if it weren’t for those pesky lawsuits.

“The overall goal of the [Teen Pregnancy Prevention] program is to give youth the information and skills that will enable them to prevent pregnancy and related risks, in order to successfully navigate from adolescence into adulthood,” HHS said in the announcement. The $19.4 million in federal grants “would have implemented a wide variety of teen pregnancy prevention curricula in diverse communities, populations, and settings across 36 States, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands,” the department said.

But the New York federal court said the overall goal of the program is not the same as the requirements placed on the grant money that Congress obligated for the year: The law requires the programs to have “been proven effective through rigorous evaluation,” the ruling said.

The grant program funded by Congress was supposed to be focused on programs with evidence-based programs, but the Trump administration changed the criteria to focus on sexual-risk avoidance programs.

Groups involved in the successful lawsuits, including Planned Parenthood, Democracy Forward, and Healthy Teen Network responded by calling the announcement “a shameful act of political theater” that attempted “to shift the blame for [the agency’s] unlawful actions onto organizations courageous enough to challenge HHS.”

“We have a responsibility to resist policies that harm our youth, our families, and our future,” said Deborah Kafoury, chair of Multnomah County in Oregon. “The new terms of this grant put organizations across this country in an impossible situation, forcing them to apply for funding under terms that did not comply with congressional intent. We believe youth and communities have a right to medically accurate, inclusive sexual health education that will keep them healthy and safe.’’

A spokesperson for HHS did not respond to requests for comment or information on what the agency plans to do next, or if and when they will offer a new grant funding opportunity. The department argued last year that the teen pregnancy programs had either no or negative impact on teen behavior, encouraging teen sex.

The announcement confused and disappointed some of the organizations on the list.

HHS said the Center for Relationship Education in Denver would have received nearly $500,000 to work with high-need rural counties in Colorado to train teachers, coaches, and parents on fostering healthy relationships.

“We’re really not sex ed at all; we’re really relationship education,” said Joneen Mackenzie, founder and president of the Center for Relationship Education. The organization caters to an unmet need, she said. “I look at Google and I can find 500 YouTube videos on how to use a condom. Then when I do a search for how to build a healthy relationship, there’s nothing.”

MacKenzie denied the characterization of her work as abstinence education. “I hate that word. It means nothing. It just fires people up .… We can work with both sides …. Our focus is healthy relationship development.”

HHS had not been directly in touch with the organization, Mackenzie said. They heard about the grant award on the agency’s website. “To get the news that we got awarded but not funded, I’m a little disappointed,” Mackenzie said. “I don’t know what that means.”

The organization has applied for the grant in the past, but never won the award until this year.

“I don’t know if I should be happy or sad or what,” Mackenzie said. “I don’t know if it’s worse being funded and not having money or not being funded at all. We don’t know what the deal is. Everybody here is confused.”

Teen pregnancy and teen abortions have been on the decline in recent decades. The U.S. birth rate for women ages 15-19 fell 64 percent between 1991 and 2015, according to HHS data. The teen abortion rate fell 68 percent from 1988 to 2011. 

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