Sex & Relationships

Now the Democrats Are Funding Abstinence?

In the interest of "avoiding controversy," Democratic House Appropriations Chair David Obey has become one of the largest funders of the famous vast right-wing conspiracy, adding $140 million for abstinence education.
Back in November of 2006, after the Democrats won control of the House, what kind of odds do you think you would have gotten on the following scenario: With the Democrats in control, the appropriations cycle begins and the first big policy step the Democrats take on domestic reproductive health is to push through a 30 percent increase in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that prohibit information about condoms and birth control. Oh, and by the way, that increase (to $140 million) is larger than any put forward in the last three years of the Republican-led Congress.

"Huh?" you might ask.

Now, let me make the scenario even better -- or worse. What if you were told that just six weeks before the Appropriations Committee met, a major 10-year evaluation that Congress itself had mandated was released showing that abstinence-only programs had no impact on teen behavior? On top of that, what if you were told that the Society of Adolescent Medicine had released a report in 2006 stating that abstinence-only-programs "threaten fundamental human rights to health, information and life?"

And wait, there's more. When Democrat Henry Waxman was the ranking minority member on government oversight back in 2004, his staff did a report on the content of abstinence-only programs that showed over 80 percent of the programs contained "false or misleading information." All the way back in 2000, the Institute of Medicine, the nation's leading authority on public health, had called for the termination of abstinence-only programs because they represent "poor fiscal and public health policy."

Crying uncle yet? Don't, because there's still more.

Between 2000 and 2006, there were no fewer than 10 state evaluations of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and not a single study showed any positive impact on teen behavior. Over the same period, nine states slapped a "return to sender" sticker on federal abstinence-only dollars because they did not want to throw good money after bad in pursuit of failed programs.

And the pièce de résistance? Less than a week before the appropriations numbers are released, a major investigative story in The Nation connects the dots and documents an enormous network of ultra-conservative organizations feeding at the abstinence-only trough -- organizations with significant track records opposing Democratic party policies and candidates. And here we have the ultimate irony of Appropriations Chair David Obey becoming one of the largest funders of the famous vast right-wing conspiracy!

So, what the hell happened and why? Apparently, the abstinence-only funding is being used as a sweetener for conservative Republicans. According to Congressional Quarterly:
Lawmakers say the olive branch extended to Republicans increases the likelihood that the bill will pass the House with a veto-proof majority. It also sends a strong signal that Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey, D-Wis., will avoid controversial social policy changes this year in the interest of moving bills.
Let's think this through. David Obey is willing to increase funding for ideologically driven programs that don't work and do real harm to real kids in order to increase the political prospects for an appropriations bill. So, really bad ideas get funded so that the process runs smoothly? Sounds a lot like the bridge to nowhere to me. I'm sure it is just what people were looking for when they thought "new leadership."

I can't wait to explain this to the young people in my organization who are peer educators and who work to prevent HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and STDs. I'm sure they'll be impressed with the logic that it's worth having hundreds of thousands of young people get incomplete and inaccurate information about how to protect themselves in the era of AIDS so that Mr. Obey's bill can move through Congress on schedule. Inspiring stuff!

And, I'm sorry, but if changing sex education policy from abstinence-only to abstinence- plus-contraception is "controversial social policy" for David Obey, then the man is a troglodyte. It's that simple.

In many ways, the abstinence-only issue is a marker for the core values of the new Democratic congressional leadership. Do they believe that policy should be guided by science and evidence or politics and ideology? Do they believe in changing the cynical standards for conducting congressional business or is the new boss the same as the old boss. And finally, do they believe in standing up for the rights of young people to have accurate, comprehensive information about sex or are young people merely a convenient legislative pawn to trade off for more "important" issues?

There's more at stake here than $140 million dollars. This is one of those moments that will define the heart and soul of this Democratic Congress.
James Wagoner is the president of Advocates for Youth.
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