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Why Are We Still Funding Abstinence-Only Sex Ed?

With its absence from the president's budget, you might have thought "Just Say No" sex ed was dead -- but the health-care bill gave it new life.

Since 1992, the federal government has spent close to $1 billion on abstinence-only sex education, despite growing evidence that these ideology-based programs are ineffective in delaying the onset of sexual activity, preventing teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually-transmitted disease among teens. Meanwhile, comprehensive sex education -- the kind where teens are given information about both abstinence and contraceptives -- has received virtually no federal funding.

That's why it was so encouraging when President Obama released his budget earlier this year and the $50 million per year since 1996 that's been devoted to abstinence-only programs was missing. It looked like this ill-conceived emphasis on "Just Say No" sex education had finally ended.

Except it hasn't. It turns out that Senator Orrin Hatch attached $50 million a year for five years into the health care bill; it made the cut to the final version, and funding for abstinence-only sex education has been reborn. It's not clear why the funding stayed in the final legislation -- reports are that it was used as a sweetener to score the votes of socially-conservative Democrats -- but now $250 million is once again available for states that agree to offer only the most restrictive no-sex-before-marriage curriculum.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, abstinence programs must meet eight criteria ( the so-called A-H criteria) to receive funding, including that they:

•    Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems

•    Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of   marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity


•    Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects


To its credit, the health-care bill also allocates (for the first time) $75 million a year for five years for states to provide comprehensive sex education programs. That's good news. But when every penny counts and health officials are making a commitment to evidence-based practice, why are we pumping money into ideology-driven sex education programs that so clearly don't work and may even cause harm?

The emphasis on abstinence-only sex education officially took off in 1996 when funding for such programs was tacked onto then-President Bill Clinton's welfare reform legislation. Also included was a Congressional mandate for a long-term study of abstinence programs to measure how effective they were in impacting teen sexual practices as compared to no sex education at all. In 2007, the authors of this mandated study issued a report with the following conclusion:

"Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age."


More evidence that abstinence-only education doesn't work can be found by looking at the latest statistics on teen childbirth rates. The April 4 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine includes the finding that after 14 years of steadily declining, teenage childbirth rates actually increased in 2006 and 2007. And that follows a full decade of increased emphasis through federal and state funding for abstinence-only sex education programs.

The same alarming rise is seen for sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 19 million new STD infections occur every year in this country, with approximately 48 percent of these new infections occurring in young people ages 15 to 24. Yet, this age group represents only 25 percent of the sexually active population in the United States.