(Chris Keane, Reuters)

“Elayne Bennett runs a program called Best Friends — the wife of [former Secretary of Education] Bill Bennett. And she told me through Bill that the Obama administration now has a policy — and this program is a program targeted at at-risk youth, specifically, in many cases, in the African-American community, who are at-risk young girls. The Obama administration now has regulations that tells them that they can no longer promote marriage to these young girls. They can no longer promote marriage as a way of avoiding poverty and bad choices that they make in their life. They can no longer actually even teach abstinence education. They have to be neutral with respect to how people behave.”

— Rick Santorum, during the GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Jan. 16, 2011

Santorum made these remarks in response to a question about whether “the time has come to take special steps to deal with the extraordinary level of poverty afflicting [African Americans.]” You might recall that the candidate made headlines earlier this month by bungling a statement about a related issue.

 “I don’t want to make peoples’ lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” Santorum told a group of Iowans on Jan. 1. The comment represents pretty standard conservative fare, but the former senator uttered a syllable that, to some ears, sounded like “black” before “people’s lives,” causing critics and the media to pounce.

Debate moderator Juan Williams may have been baiting Santorum into a race discussion, but the GOP candidate cleverly shifted the spotlight onto the Obama administration, making the type of accusation that gets a rise out of values voters.

We talked to Elayne Bennett and reviewed Obama’s record on abstinence education to determine whether Santorum’s debate remarks were accurate.

The Facts

Bennett told us that no federal officials ever prohibited her organization from encouraging marriage. In fact, the federal government bankrolled the foundation’s efforts to promote healthy marriages before and after Obama entered the White House, so Santorum is wrong on that account.

Best Friends operates a variety of projects that it says are “dedicated to the physical and emotional well-being of adolescents.” In 2006, the group won a five-year, $2.5-million federal grant to run its Healthy Marriage program, which taught conflict resolution, communication, abuse prevention, financial skills, and the benefits of abstinence.

The abstinence element must have caused a rub with the Department of Health and Human Services, which awarded the federal grant. Officials from the department told Best Friends it could no longer discuss abstinence or characterize teen sex as a risky behavior during its marriage classes.

Health and Human Services spokesman Kenneth Wolfe confirmed that the department requested “corrective action” from Best Friends in 2009, after the Obama administration determined abstinence education was never an allowable activity under the healthy-marriage grant program.

Bennett, the foundation’s president, notified Santorum that he had made an error with his debate remarks. She issued the following statement on Tuesday:

The Department of Health and Human Services changed the policy for the Healthy Marriage grant awardees in 2009. Under the new policy, abstinence from sexual activity was not to be discussed within our Healthy Marriage program. The word abstinence was to be removed from all our curriculum utilized in this grant funded program. Marriage and the benefits of marriage continued to be an integral part of the curriculum.

Best Friends subsequently scrubbed its curriculum to comply with the department’s demands — which came during the third year of the foundation’s five-year grant. Bennett said she did not to apply for federal funding to continue her group’s marriage program, explaining that the process is difficult, and that she has little faith the organization could win more money under the current administration.

The official description of the federal healthy marriage grant mentions nothing about sex education or abstinence. Instead, it says that the funding will “support innovative projects designed to strengthen existing marriages and to prepare unmarried couples for successful healthy marriages.”

Bennett said she has no regrets about including abstinence education in her group’s marriage program. “There has to be some understanding that indiscriminate sex is not conducive to healthy relationships,” she said.

Before jumping into Obama’s stance on abstinence education, we should note that different factions disagree over what the term means.

According to some, abstinence education represents one element of the “comprehensive” approach, which teaches the benefits of abstinence while explaining that contraception can help prevent infections and unwanted pregnancies.

Valerie Huber, director of the National Abstinence Education Association, uses a different definition. She says abstinence education should stress the emotional and health benefits of refraining from pre-marital sex, while focusing much less on the riskier practice of protected sex — without ignoring it altogether. She claims the comprehensive approach emphasizes contraception too much.

As for the concept of a 50-50 methodological split, Huber says that’s an “idea for pundits only.” She insists there’s always an emphasis one way or another.

A third approach to sex education, “abstinence-only,” emphasizes the benefits of waiting for marriage, while ignoring contraception altogether — for fear that teaching about it will encourage teens to have pre-marital sex.

Congress provided a boost for abstinence education as part of the sweeping welfare-reform act of 1996, which promised $50 million toward the cause each year. That move prompted arguments over how to best teach sex education, with various advocacy groups citing studies to help prove their respective points.

No one appears to have scored a definitive victory in the debate. Some studies show that abstinence-only has no positive bearing on teen-intercourse rates, while others indicate that a morally neutral version of the method can yield positive results.

The Bush administration made its position clear by increasing abstinence-education funding to about $200 million annually.

So where does the current president stand?

Obama’s 2010 budget eliminated funding for abstinence education, but also devoted about $110 million toward two new teen-pregnancy prevention initiatives that would fund programs “proven effective through rigorous evaluation.” Congress piled on an additional $55 million in abstinence-education funding while negotiating the massive healthcare-reform bill.  

The Obama administration changed the criteria for the healthy marriage grants in 2011, adding a clause that prohibited the funds from being used “for unauthorized activities, including, but not limited to, an Abstinence Education program.”

Santorum’s campaign did not respond to questions for this column.

The Pinocchio Test

The actions of Health and Human Services suggests one of two things, depending on your perspective: either the Obama administration came down hard on abstinence education or Bennett stretched her no-sex-until-marriage agenda into a federally funded program in which it didn’t belong. It’s also possible that both are true.

Regardless, Obama’s 2010 budget moves suggest he wanted to distance his administration from the moralistic stigma of abstinence education. In that respect, Santorum appears to be on track with his remarks.

But the candidate clearly misspoke by asserting that Obama tried to stop the Best Friends Foundation from promoting marriage as well as abstinence. We recognize that he heard the story from from a secondary source, and a lot can go wrong in that situation. But his campaign hasn’t tried to explain or clarify his erroneous remarks -- he may have misheard Bill Bennett or simply twisted the facts. The answer is not clear.

On the whole, the candidate earns one Pinocchio for his remarks. We may change that determination if more information becomes available.

One Pinocchio

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