House Passes Welfare Reform Bill Containing Renewal of Funding for Abstinence-Only Sex Education Programs
The House voted 229-197 yesterday to pass a welfare reform bill that would extend funding for abstinence-only education programs, the Washington Post reports. The bill (HR 4737) is a revision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which is set to expire this year (Goldstein/Eilperin, Washington Post, 5/17). The act originally allocated $50 million per year over five years to states for the provision of abstinence-only education programs (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 4/25). The new bill would extend the funding for this program at the current level. Every state except for California receives federal abstinence-only education funding. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that abstinence education funding represents "an important option for states." But Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said that the program is "dangerous" because programs funded with the money cannot inform participants about any form of contraception other than abstinence (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 5/17). The bill now moves to the Senate, where some of its "more restrictive" provisions might be altered, the New York Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 5/17). Senate Democrats and Republicans are working on a compromise bill that is supported by governors and other state officials (Brogan, USA Today, 5/17).
"I commend the House for moving quickly and now urge the Senate to act on behalf of those who seek a better life," President Bush said in a statement (White House release, 5/16). HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson added, "The House should be commended for its bold and courageous vote to take the next step of welfare reform" (HHS release, 5/16). But abortion-rights groups and comprehensive sex education advocates were displeased with the continuation of funding for the abstinence programs. Abstinence-only education programs "censor information about the health benefits of contraception, lack any credible evidence of effectiveness and have been rejected by every mainstream medical and health organization in the United States," Advocates for Youth President James Wagoner said (Advocates for Youth release, 5/16). Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Gloria Feldt said, "Despite the president's on-the-record claims to spend money on what works, he is aggressively advocating for programs deemed ineffective by health care experts" (Othmer Institute at Planned Parenthood of New York City release, 5/15). Although abstinence is "a certain" way to prevent transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, states should be given leeway to broaden abstinence programs to include discussion of condoms, the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families stated in a press release. The alliance urged the Senate to add a provision to the bill that would allow states to opt for "abstinence-based education," in which abstinence is stressed but other forms of contraception are discussed (AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families release, 5/16). The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, along with other religious groups and leaders, is planning to release an open letter "providing a religious context for supporting comprehensive sexuality education programs" -- which include instruction about contraception -- and "opposing abstinence-only programs." Debra Haffner, co-director of the Religious Institute, said, "There is a false assumption that the religious community is in lock-step with the abstinence-only community. They are not" (Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing release, 5/16).