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simply not achieving their stated goals, these programs are generally rife with misinformation, gender stereotypes, and outdated materials.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.