Health bill restores $250 million in abstinence-education funds

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010

A little-noticed provision of the health legislation has rescued federal support for a controversial form of sex education: teaching youths to remain virgins until marriage.

The bill restores $250 million over five years for states to sponsor programs aimed at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by focusing exclusively on encouraging children and adolescents to avoid sex. The funding provides at least a partial reprieve for the approach, which faced losing all federal support under President Obama's first two budgets.

"We're very happy to see that funding will continue so the important sexual health message of risk avoidance will reach American teens," said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, a Washington-based lobbying group. "What better place to see such an important health issue addressed than in the health legislation?"

But the funding was condemned by critics, who were stupefied by the eleventh-hour rescue.

"To spend a quarter-billion dollars on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that have already been proven to fail is reckless and irresponsible," said James Wagoner of the Washington group Advocates for Youth. "When on top of that you add the fact that this puts the health and lives of young people at risk, this becomes outrageous."

During President George W. Bush's administration, abstinence programs received more than $100 million a year directly in federal funding and about $50 million each year in federal money funneled through the states.

But the effort came under mounting criticism when independent evaluations concluded that the approach was ineffective, and evidence began to emerge that the long decline in teen pregnancies was reversing.

As part of Obama's first budget, Congress approved a request for more than $110 million for a new "teenage pregnancy prevention" initiative that would fund only programs that have been "proven effective through rigorous evaluation," effectively excluding abstinence programs.

The initiative includes $25 million for new, innovative programs that could potentially embrace those encouraging abstinence. A University of Pennsylvania researcher reported last month that a carefully designed, morally neutral abstinence-focused approach can work. But the program does not earmark funding for programs focused on maintaining virginity.

During the health legislation debate in the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) added $50 million in annual funding for five years to states for abstinence programs -- a provision that survived the tumultuous process that ensued.

"There's very little good, as far as I'm concerned, to be found in this $2.5 trillion health-care bill that raises taxes, increases the debt and slashes Medicare for a new, unaffordable entitlement," Hatch said in a statement. "Given recent studies that have proved that abstinence education is effective at reducing teen pregnancy, it's no wonder this funding was included in the bill."

The legislation also includes $75 million a year over five years for a new "personal responsibility education" program, which would fund programs that teach youths about abstinence and contraception.

But Huber said it was unlikely that "abstinence-only" programs would be eligible for that funding, meaning that about 130 programs serving an estimated 1.5 million youths that had been getting funding directly from the federal government will still lose their funding in September.

"That's very troubling. This is not a time to be limiting solutions," Huber said.

Critics, however, maintained that there was no reason to continue funding any programs, given the lack of evidence of their effectiveness and speculated that the money survived as part of the effort to win conservative Democratic support for the legislation.

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