(VIDEO) The Ab-Only Sex-Ed Zombie Can Be Killed!

Last summer, the $50 million-a-year federal Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage grant program died a quiet death. Despite vocal protestations from the extreme right wing, which wanted to continue funneling money to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and speakers across the country, Congress correctly decided not to renew funding due, in large part, to the overwhelming evidence that these programs are ineffective and entail serious ethical concerns.

Now, however, like a shambling, mindless zombie, the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program is going through a grotesque rebirth and is included in the healthcare reform bill that was recently signed by President Obama. How this program could go from being left on the scrap heap like so much garbage to being included in the most ambitious and progressive social legislation in decades should baffle anyone who believes in putting science- and evidence-based decision making ahead of cheap political gimmicks.

To understand fully why it is so ridiculous that the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program was included in healthcare reform, it helpful to understand why it was eliminated in the first place.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs don’t work – Numerous studies, including one conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found no evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs increased rates of sexual abstinence. In addition, students in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the study had a similar number of sexual partners as their peers not in the programs, as well as a similar age of first sex. Scientific evidence simply does not support an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs contain harmful information – Aside from simply not achieving their stated goals, these programs are generally rife with misinformation, gender stereotypes, and outdated materials.  The programs also use fear and shame to promote abstinence-until-marriage, in some cases comparing young people who have had sex to petal-less flowers, dirty sneakers, glasses of spit, and presents opened before Christmas morning.

Title V and other federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding is a colossal waste of taxpayer money –  Despite the fact that no study in a professional peer-reviewed journal has found these programs to be broadly effective, between 1996 and federal Fiscal Year 2009, Congress funneled over $1.5 billion dollars (through both federal and state matching funds) to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs through several funding streams including the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program.

The Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program was on its way out anyway – At the time that the program was allowed to expire at the end of June 2009, nearly half the states had opted out of the program for reasons ranging from the fiscal burden it created to serious ethical concerns about foisting a failed programs onto young people.

For all of these reasons, the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage was allowed to lapse and take its place in the musty crypts of failed federal legislation.

So, what has changed so drastically in the past nine months that warrants reviving the program?

Well… nothing. Congress had it right last year when they pulled the plug, and the programs, right-wing extremists, and their agenda remain the same.  Unfortunately, the programs were reinserted in health reform for unknown–but clearly political–reasons only.

Still, this should not, and cannot, be the end of the fight to defeat funding for these programs. Congress will always have the opportunity and ability to cut funding for the program, and they should exercise that ability as soon as possible. It is ironic that at a time when so many Democratic representatives were willing to risk their political careers to support healthcare reform, that they did not remove a program that is ineffective, inefficient, and unpopular.  Similarly, states that had opted out the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage previously should remain out of the program, and any other state that cares about its young people having a healthy and safe future should join them.

We are, of course, pleased that the final healthcare bill includes the Personal Responsibility Education program, which would provide $75 million for a state grant program for more comprehensive approaches to sex education.  However, spending $75 million to promote comprehensive sex education and $50 million for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs is like spending $75 million on improving the nutritional quality of school lunches, and then $50 million poisoning them.

We call on all parents, young people, educators, advocates, and policy makers to stand up against this perversion of the spirit of the health care reform bill.  Programs that put young people’s health and lives at risk by denying them important information about contraception and condoms had no place in legislation dedicated to making Americans healthier. We applaud the months of effort that went into crafting this historic piece of legislation, but Congress should be just as troubled as we are that this health care reform package has been tarnished by reintroducing federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. We have the best opportunity in a generation to improve the future health of all Americans, and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs should have no place in that future.

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  • elizabeth-gregory

    The new birth data for 2008 out yesterday indicates a 2% fall in teen births, along with a similar fall in the overall rate.  That’s being attributed to the recession – and indeed recessions are a time-honored form of birth control.  But they also involve ancillary knowledge of more direct means of birth control – and the fall off in support for ab-only birth control may well be part of that, given that the ab-only programs were notably failing by 2007, when the data for 2006 came out in December 2007, indicating the first rise in the teen birth rate in 14 years (before then it had been a steady decline).


    So, along with the recession, the cut in reliance on ab-only ed must play a role in the 2008 fall in teen birth rates.  Something to point out to lawmakers considering whether to maintain this funding.



  • derbycitymaniac

       Personally, I’m tired of seeing important scientific policy decisions being made by anyone not qualified to make those decisions.  Ranging from the religious opposition to sexual education and stem cell research, to the Pope going to the most AIDS ravaged parts of Africa and telling it’s citizens that contraception is immoral; the religious faction’s reach goes much further than just the pulpit.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5wHLegCnmU      

      A persons best defense against STD’s & unwanted pregnancy is knowledge.  Once someone is well-informed, they can make the best decision for themselves.  Not only do abstinence-only programs not work, but when coupled with a lack of sexual education and a sense that contraceptives are immoral, they also can contribute to STD’s & abortions (which puts the mother @ further risk for health complications and religious persecution).  Why are important health policy decisions being made by preachers and not doctors?  What right do the religious people have to force their uninformed opinions on the country?   America is on a slippery slope right now with a 2000 year old book setting our policies instead of basing our policies on sound science.  In my opinion we should leave science to the scientists and healthcare to the doctors.

  • truth

    Because abstinence is the only fully effective way of preventing teen pregnancy, you cannot take it out of the curriculum. Even the majority of Democratic Representatives know this. Please get your facts straight. Stop spreading mis-information and confusion.

  • jayn

    Who ever said anything about taking abstinence out?  The problem is the LACK of information teens are being given.  You don’t need to have ab-only sex ed to teach kids about abstinence, but they also need (either for present or future use) information about contraception and birth control.  Teens are on their way to becoming adults–we need to prepare them to be able to make decisions in their adult lives.  And that means teaching more than just abstinence.

  • crowepps

    Well, if you start off by explaining that sex is what makes babies, then I would think it would be pretty obvious to all the kids right off the bat that NOT having sex means you WON’T make a baby. So having covered that issue (five minutes would be sufficient to explain it completely – “no sex = no baby”), then there’s time to teach them all the more complicated and lengthy stuff based in science and medicine.


    You might want to consider that the purpose of “sex education” is NOT “prevention of teen pregnancy” or “upholding society’s moral standards” or “listing sins” but instead “teaching factual information useful to students after they become adults”.

  • katwa

    Sure, it’s (almost – don’t forget about rape) 100% effective with perfect use but what are it’s stats with typical use? We estimate effectiveness with other birth control methods with typical use, why are we promoting this one with only it’s perfect use rate? The perfect use rate of my bc of choice – depo vera – is 99.99%, that’s really not that much lower. The benefits of lovemaking with my partner are definitely worth the .01% pregnancy risk.


    Plus, I’m all for encouraging abstinence, it’s abstinence until marriage I have a problem with. Most people I know don’t get married until their late 20s or 30s, and plenty don’t get married at all! (i don’t plan on it, and for some it’s not even legal). Comprehensive sex education DOES teach abstinence as an effective birth control, ab-only until marriage pushes a specific religion’s values on our children even if they themselves are not of that religion. Religious teachings should be kept in the church or home. School should be teaching FACTS.


    The other problem with ab-only until marriage is they don’t teach about controlling your reproduction system WITHIN MARRIAGE either. Even if your abstinent until marriage that means you will need to know how to have healthy and safe sex eventually, right? Most things we learn in school are for use for when we are adults, this is something every adult will most likely need to know, whether we are remaining abstinent until marriage or not.

  • crowepps

    Remember the young man who said he and his girlfriend were abstinent “most of the time”?  Did the math just for fun – married people who have an hour of sex every other night are ‘abstinent’ 98% of the time.

  • jayn

    Moreover, since typical use failure rates tend to stem from improper use of contraception methods, a more comprehensive sex-ed experience can couter-act that.  My teachers gave demonstrations of how to properly use a condom (both male and female) so that when we did become sexually active, we would be more likely to use them properly.  We also got perfect and typical use effectiveness rates for most forms of contraception, so we could make educated choices on which ones we would want to use when the time came to use them.


    And none of this meant that abstinence wasn’t being promoted.  We never learned ‘this is how you should behave’, just ‘do what feels right for you’, which is really a pretty empowering message–we were told to not let others bully us into doings things we didn’t feel comfortable with.

  • katwa

    We never learned ‘this is how you should behave’, just ‘do what feels right for you’


    This is just going to make the conservatives think comprehensive ed is even worse! They are against teaching “do what feels right for you”. They think anything that feels good is immoral, and that we all need to be told how to behave exactly how they want us to behave.

  • jayn

    I was trying to talk to the viewpoint of helping teens make good choices (one possible-if flawed-reason for pushing ab-only) rather than trying to control teens (which is just unreasonable to expect).  The latter thought process I don’t expect to be able to argue with.

  • crowepps

    Good choices is an excellent basis for any sex education program, as is talking about resisting peer pressure, and, in my opinion, talking about exactly how the mechanisms of control work in abusive relationships, where one party (either sex) tries to dominate the other, and what underlying messages teens are being sold by entertainment and advertisements: unrealistic beautry standards, girls are losers if they don’t have a boyfriend, sex equals love, and masculinity always equates with power and control.


    I’m not sure how many hours are devoted to these programs, but it shouldn’t take that long to run through the basic physiology and medical information, and then if you could get the teens to understand that it’s both their right and responsibility to control of what happens to their bodies, and that they never have an obligation to do something they don’t want to do just because someone else wants to do it, that alone would probably help enormously in preventing teen pregnancy.


    The problem I see with ab-only programs is they relentlessly push their authoritarian viewpoint that people aren’t supposed to be making any choices, that the expected behavior for everybody is exactly the same – marriage – and that everyone’s sexuality can be repressed until they are married.  Aside from the outdated gender role models and the overt religiosity, I have a real problem with the idea that there is only one ‘right’ model of life for everybody, and that anyone who doesn’t conform with that model is flawed, debased and abnormal, etc.


    Normal is not the same thing as average.  Normal is always a bell curve.