HHS Blocks Abstinence Education As 'Unallowable'
Advocates of the 'risk-avoidance' approach of abstinence education defend its effectiveness.
BY Mary Frances Boyle
| Posted 9/12/11 at 8:50 AM
WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services released a new Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for initiatives that promote healthy marriages — as long as those projects don’t include abstinence-education programs.
FOA applicants are required to include a written statement pledging that abstinence education is not a part of their programs. In fact, teaching abstinence is defined as an “unallowable activity.”
Groups are asked to make a “commitment to not use funds for unauthorized activities, including, but not limited to, an abstinence-education program.”
The funding for these marriage programs comes from the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, which includes $75 million for “healthy-marriage promotion” and “responsible fatherhood grants.”
Valerie Huber, director of the National Abstinence Education Association, was not happy with the new federal policy.
“Preventing youth from receiving sexual-abstinence skills is very troubling and completely ignores the body of research that now links teen sex to future divorce in marriage,” she said.
The FOA was released when Huber was lobbying members of Congress to sign a bipartisan letter asking the Appropriations Committee that at least half of all sex-education funds be allotted for abstinence education.
Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., was a co-sponsor of the letter. He said, “Abstinence education has been an important issue for me during my service in Congress. The risk-avoidance approach of abstinence education appropriately prepares youth to make informed decisions.”
Huber and Boren argue that they have the facts on their side.
In their work on human sexuality, the Family Research Council has found that “risk avoidance or abstinence messaging serves as the best primary prevention approach for those who both have and have not been sexually active outside of marriage.”
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., cites at least 10 scientific studies backing the effectiveness of abstinence programs in preventing early sexual activity.
One study released this year in The Journal of Marriage and Family concludes that females who had sex in their teenage years were twice as likely to divorce later in life than those who waited to have sex.
Huber called out the Obama administration for ignoring the evidence and continuing to insist on an anti-abstinence education platform.
According to the National Abstinence Education Association, the ratio of sex-ed spending to abstinence-education spending is now over 16-1.
“The unexplained hostility to risk-avoidance abstinence programs defies the evidence-based framework that the Obama administration purports to support,” Huber said.
“With the numerous sex scandals continually played out in the media, it is disturbing that programs encouraging self-restraint and self-respect are viewed as the enemy of the ‘healthy marriages’ these programs are designed to achieve.”
Public health officials and liberal scholars have long questioned the efficacy of abstinence education, but a 2007 report released by the Department of Health and Human Services and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. marked a more serious challenge to the effectiveness of this approach and provided powerful ammunition for skeptics. In the last four years, experts have continued to debate the issue, with proponents of abstinence education asserting that the 2007 report only evaluated a handful of more than 900 programs then in place, some of which did not include middle or high school students..
The FOA is just one of a number of blows against abstinence education over the past few years. New York City recently released a mandate to public middle and high schools requiring sex-education classes that include instruction on proper condom use and when it is appropriate to engage in sexual activity.
According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the mandate is a part of the administration’s strategy to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers.
In the U.S. today, 73% of black children are born to unwed mothers, and 53% Hispanic children are born out of wedlock. In New York City, black and Latino teenagers are also more likely than white teenagers to experience unplanned pregnancies and contract sexually transmitted diseases.
According to Bloomberg, this mandate is one of a number of public-health policies designed to improve the lives of minorities in the city.
While the mandate has received positive feedback from many groups in the New York community, Catholic leaders have expressed serious concern.
Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said, “Rates of teen sexual activity and pregnancies continue to soar, despite condoms being freely given away, including in our public schools.”
“Abstinence before marriage is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and disease, and recent scholarship has shown that abstinence education leads to healthier, better adjusted teens and young adults. The city would be better advised to put its efforts into promoting what truly works rather than continuing to promote a failed experiment,” Zwilling said.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan publicly criticized the mandate during a televised interview..
“What message are we giving our kids when we say, ‘We know you’re going to do this’ to fourth-graders. ‘We know you’re probably going to succumb to all the temptations around you, and everybody’s doing it. We know you can’t be good, so be careful.’ I don’t know if that’s a wise message to give our kids,” Archbishop Dolan said in an interview with a local New York news channel.
The ongoing battle in the United States over the merits of abstinence education drew attention in Rome.
In a front-page column for L’Osservatore Romano, Lucetta Scaraffia, professor of contemporary history at the University of Rome La Sapienza, backed Archbishop Dolan’s response.
“It is not clear why public institutions in the West continue to have such magical trust in the effectiveness of sex education,” Scaraffia wrote. “By now, it’s clear that it is absolutely not enough to explain how to use contraceptives and where to find them easily in order to avoid these tragedies.”
She concluded, “The problem is more upstream, in education and therefore in the family.”
Register correspondent Mary Frances Boyle writes from Washington, D.C.
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