Abstinence-Only a Failure: Spotlight Now on Democrats in Congress


James Wagoner is the President of Advocates For Youth.

The release of the 10-year evaluation of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs on Friday (if you can call the posting of the report on an obscure government website on a Friday afternoon a "release"), puts a big, bright spotlight on Democrats in Congress, particularly the appropriators.

Congress asked for this evaluation back in 1997. Do these programs work to protect young people? Ten years and over $1.5 billion dollars later, they got their answer. No, they don't. Period.

Now, you might be wondering why Congress went ahead and spent all that money over all those years with no evidence of effectiveness? You might wonder why Congress didn't halt these programs after the Institute of Medicine, the nation's leading authority on public health, called for their elimination back in 2000 or when the Society of Adolescent Medicine reported that the efficacy of abstinence-only programs was "near zero."

You might also wonder why Congress didn't take the hint when ten states issued negative evaluations; when eight governors refused abstinence-only funding; when the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) slammed the programs for lack of oversight and violations of the Public Health Service Act; or when the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics called for a different approach—one that includes abstinence and contraception?

Why did Congress ignore each and every sign that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs weren't working and continue appropriating money? Was there some "back room" deal among Members? Was the health and well-being of young people in this country traded off for a "bridge to nowhere", an increase in the fennel crop subsidy, or a study on the mating habits of the pup fish?

So many questions. So few answers.

But now there is a new Congress. Surely, the "new bosses" won't be the same as the "old bosses?" Surely, back room deals won't dictate whether millions of young people continue to be subjected to programs that don't work. Surely this Congress won't deprive youth of essential information necessary to protect their health and lives in the era of AIDS.

For the millions of young people, and adults, in this country who care about honest sex education and watch what our leaders do, it is now "put up or shut up" time for the Democrats who run Congress.

The real test will be what happens in the appropriations committees where there is over $113 million allocated to the most extreme abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Democrats should de-fund these programs now. But early signals from these committees are not encouraging. There is a real possibility that Democrats will continue the funding for these failed programs—programs that constitute one of the biggest ideological boondoggles of the last fifty years. These early signals should make us all concerned—very concerned.

We were told that things would be different with a new Congress. We were told that public health policy would be directed by science and common sense, not politics and ideology.

There is still plenty of time to get things right. But it will take a significant mobilization of our community. With all that is at stake, it's time to get busy!

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