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Obama administration's sex-ed program criticized by both sides of abstinence debate

Maci and son Bentley in MTV's show
Maci and son Bentley in MTV's show "Teen Mom". This show, along with films such as "Juno" and births by famous teens, has seemed to make adolescent pregnancies more socially acceptable. (Mtv Via Associated Press)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:27 AM

Over the past decade, politicians have battled about how to reduce the teen pregnancy rate: safe-sex vs. abstinence-only sex education programs, even as films such as "Juno" and births by famous teens such as Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears seemed to make adolescent pregnancies more socially acceptable.

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At the same time, after declining for years, the teen pregnancy rate increased, but the pace at which teens were having babies appeared to stop falling or even inch up.

Now, the Obama administration has entered the politically sensitive debate, promising to put scientific evidence before political ideology. A $110 million campaign will support a range of programs, including those that teach about the risks of specific sexual activities and the benefits of contraception and others that focus primarily on encouraging teens to delay sex.

The initiative exemplifies the administration's oft-repeated quest to find new strategies to defuse some of the nation's most divisive issues. In this case, officials are hoping to appease advocates of teaching teens about condoms and other forms of birth control as well as those who oppose sex outside marriage.

Although the program is being hailed by many adolescent health experts, it is being denounced by some on both sides of the abstinence debate.

"This is one of those emotionally charged issues where it's very difficult to find compromise," said Amy E. Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois. "It inevitably becomes entangled in a larger constellation of issues, such as abortion, that raise ideological, moral and religious questions."

During the George W. Bush administration, the federal government spent $1.5 billion on programs that encouraged teens to delay sex until marriage. Critics said it was grounded in religious tenets and conservative doctrine, failed to educate teens about condoms in the age of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and ineffective.

In response, the Obama administration launched a teen pregnancy prevention program that officials promised would fund only programs that had been proven to work. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded $75 million to 75 groups to try to reproduce some of the 28 programs deemed to have been "proven effective through rigorous evaluation."

HHS also awarded $35 million to 40 organizations to test "innovative strategies" that appeared promising. Altogether, 115 programs in 38 states and the District received funding.

"We were hoping for and hopefully got a healthy mix that will be both spreading evidenced-based programs around the country and allow us to identify programs that are as effective or more effective," said Sharon Parrott, human services counselor for HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Many experts agree.

"What's exciting and innovative about that is not only the full-fledged return of science to the field of teenage pregnancy prevention but also the opportunity to adapt these approaches to the needs of individual communities," said Michael Resnick, who studies adolescent health issues at the University of Minnesota.


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