House Committee Approves Renewal of Abstinence-Only Education Funding Contained in Welfare Reform Bill
The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 35-17 on Wednesday to renew a provision in the 1996 welfare reform bill that allocates funding for abstinence-only education programs, the AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports (Meckler, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 4/25). The Welfare Reform Act, which is up for reauthorization this year, originally allocated $50 million per year over five years to states for the provision of abstinence-only education programs (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 4/24). The House committee voted to renew the funding at the same level for five more years. The committee voted against an amendment that would have required that only "medically accurate" information be included in the programs (AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 4/25). Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said she proposed the amendment because many abstinence programs are "exaggerating the failure rate of condoms" and using "terror techniques to keep teens from having sex." But committee Republicans stated that "it would be impossible to agree on what information is medically accurate" (Associated Press, 4/25). The committee also rejected a proposal that would have allowed states to decide whether to include discussion of contraception in abstinence programs (AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 4/25). Programs funded through the welfare bill must teach that abstinence is the only "certain" way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and cannot discuss the "benefits" of contraception (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 1/31). Committee Democrats had objected to the complete exclusion of contraceptives, stating that young people should receive instruction on how to protect themselves if they do become sexually active. "A gag rule on information is no way to solve a serious health problem," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said. However, Committee Chair Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said that states do not have to accept the abstinence funding and can create their own sex education programs with other funds (AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 4/25). Waxman had proposed an amendment that would have required that abstinence programs "prove their effectiveness" before receiving funding, but that proposal was rejected as well (Rovner, CongressDaily/AM, 4/25).
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson "commend[ed]" the committee's decision to renew the abstinence funding. "Reauthorization of the abstinence education grant program is a key component of this administration's efforts to enhance child well-being, foster the formation of healthy families and help teens achieve their full potential. ... Education supporting an abstinence-until-marriage message is a positive development in our nation's efforts to help adolescents avoid behaviors that could jeopardize their futures," he said (HHS release, 4/24). Kathleen Sullivan, director of Project Reality, an organization that provides abstinence education programs, said, "Students are responding incredibly well to abstinence programs across the country. Abstinence programs are helping teens to choose for themselves that abstinence is the healthiest lifestyle" (Project Reality release, 4/25).
Criticizing the funding renewal, Advocates for Youth President James Wagoner said, "If advocates of abstinence-only education truly want their programs to be effective ... they would not have voted against amendments to ensure that government funding go only to programs that provide medically accurate information and are effective in reducing teen pregnancy" (Advocates for Youth release, 4/24). Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Gloria Feldt called the committee's action "dangerous, irresponsible and reprehensible," adding that the vote "reflects the Bush administration's agenda to appease political extremists at the expense of the health and lives of American youth" (Planned Parenthood release, 4/24). "Our young people need, want and deserve open, honest and medically accurate information and education about their sexual health to prevent unintended pregnancy, STDs and HIV/AIDS, not programs that are shame and fear-based, biased and misrepresent the effectiveness of contraception and condoms," Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States President Tamara Kreinin said (SIECUS release, 4/24). And Bruce Mendelson, an alcohol and substance abuse epidemiologist, writes in a Denver Post op-ed that abstinence-only programs are "wrapped ... in morality," have no "public health focus" and contain several flaws. He states that such programs do not teach a "middle ground," meaning that their lessons are a "hard sell" in a society where the majority of teens have had sex before they graduate high school. In addition, with many people getting married later or choosing not to get married at all, it is unrealistic to expect these people to practice rigorous abstinence, he states (Mendelson, Denver Post, 4/25). A March 2002 32-page policy monograph that discusses the arguments and the evidence for and against abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education programs is available online at the University of California-San Francisco's HIV InSite Web page.