Why Restoring Abstinence Funding Isn’t the End of the World

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You may have heard that on Tuesday evening, the Senate Finance Committee approved another Hatch amendment (he’s got a million of ‘em, folks) to restore $50 million in Title V funding for abstinence-only programs that Congress allowed to expire in June. As you might imagine, this has social conservatives somersaulting and social liberals…well, not so much. There are, however, good reasons to believe that we are not headed back to the Bush era of sex education policy.

For one, less attention has been given to the fact that the committee also gave the thumbs-up to a Baucus amendment that appropriates $75 million in grants to comprehensive sex ed programs, as well as research into innovative strategies to prevent teen pregnancy. That’s a 50% increase over the amount Obama requested in his FY2010 budget

Second, programs that receive abstinence funding under Title V have to adhere to an eight-point definition of abstinence, the so-called “A through H” definition. But while the Bush administration required that qualifying programs give equal weight to all eight points, Kathleen Sebelius’ HHS–which will award and administer the grants–could return to the earlier understanding that programs place emphasis on some points more than others. Let’s look at them:

A. Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity

B. Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children

C. Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems

D. Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity

E. Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects

F. Teach that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society

G. Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances

H. Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

Now, obviously that first point (A) is the most contentious is you’re an advocate of comprehensive sex ed because it precludes instruction about contraception. But B, C, F, G, and H are fairly central components of standard comprehensive curricula, and research shows that they need to part of any effective pregnancy prevention program. These abstinence programs still aren’t going to be as successful as comprehensive strategies that include a strong abstinence message. But a Democratic HHS not only isn’t likely to require programs to make “not until marriage” the central message–the agency also doesn’t have to award grants to programs that do so, nor to programs that disseminate false information about the risks of contraception.

Finally, it’s far from certain that the Hatch funding will survive to the final version of health care reform, should it become law. GOP Rep. Lee Terry offered a similar amendment during the House mark-up of health care and it was voted down. Abstinence-only is back for now, but it ain’t what it used to be.