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Will Democrats Axe Abstinence-Only Sex Ed?

Since Democrats took control in 2006, Congress has yet to cut even a dollar of abstinence education funding. Let's hope change is on the way.

As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to eliminate ineffective federal programs. Now that he's president, many Democrats know where he should start.

The largest federal abstinence-until-marriage programs began 12 years ago when Republicans inserted funding for them into the 1996 welfare reform act. Under the Bush administration, the programs thrived, growing from $80 million in 2001 to $176 million in 2008. Bush increased funding for one abstinence program in 2005 even after it received a "results not demonstrated" rating from Bush's own Office of Management and Budget. Still, the last few years have brought good news to advocates for comprehensive sex education, even before the November election.

Change on the Way?

In the research arena, a consensus is emerging that abstinence-plus programs -- those that also include information about contraception -- outperform those focusing exclusively on abstinence. Research on virginity pledges published in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics is the fifth major study since 2007 to conclude that abstinence-until-marriage approaches either have little effect on teen behavior or fare worse than comprehensive sex education programs in changing behavior.

State-level politics on teen pregnancy are also shifting. Despite budget pressures, half of the states refuse federal Title V block grants that fund abstinence-until-marriage programs. The grants require programs to teach individuals up to age 29 that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

Another shift is that the nation now has a president with a record of supporting comprehensive sex education. In 2007, as senator, Obama co-sponsored the Responsible Education About Life Act, which would have provided grants to states to provide abstinence-plus education. (The bill died in committee.)

Blue Dog Politics

The Democrats' big tent could limit how far they push on abstinence policies.

Since Democrats took control in 2006, Congress has yet to cut even a dollar of abstinence education funding. Democrats have treated abstinence programs as a bargaining chip in negotiations over health and education funding, while Republicans have protected them as a core priority.

For example, even though the Title V abstinence program expired in 2003, Republicans have gotten temporary renewals by attaching the program to medical assistance for welfare-to-work recipients.

Congressional Democrats have supported ongoing funding for Community-Based Abstinence Education -- the largest federal abstinence program -- in exchange for Republican votes on a multi-agency appropriations bill that funds labor- and health-related programs. In the current Congress, the swing voters on sex education funding will likely be the Blue Dogs -- House Democrats from conservative districts.

Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Zack Space (Ohio) and Jim Matheson (Utah) represent such districts. They also serve on one of the House subcommittees that oversee abstinence-only funding. In These Times called their offices three times for their positions on funding for abstinence-until-marriage and comprehensive sex education, but their offices had not responded by press time.

None of the three were among the 164 co-sponsors of last year's Prevention First Act, which would have provided new funding for comprehensive sex education. The bill died in their subcommittee.

Abstinence-only activists may be targeting the Blue Dogs for support. Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, describes her lobbying strategy this way: "Since many abstinence-education providers and abstinence-education supporting parents voted for Obama and the current Congress, cutting abstinence education funding could certainly alienate these constituencies."

Asked to assess the prospects of a policy shift, Heather Boonstra, a senior policy associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), a research organization supportive of comprehensive sex education, says, "I don't think that it's a given. There are promising signs, but, of course, the administration can only go so far because it will require an act of Congress to either get rid of these abstinence-only programs entirely or to fund more comprehensive approaches."

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