Is James Wagoner paranoid, or is the federal government out to get him?
The president of Advocates for Youth, a national organization that promotes comprehensive sex education, has seen federal auditors pore over his agency’s records three times in just over a year. The same thing has happened at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), another large federal grantee promoting comprehensive sex ed nationwide.
Meanwhile, programs that promote abstinence-only education are getting more federal money than ever – including, it appears, every earmark designated for youth sex education in the past year through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Audits are fair game for any organization that gets government money. And even those who push to educate youth about contraception are putting more emphasis on abstinence as a choice for avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
But comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education are smack in the middle of the country’s culture wars, and these recent moves reveal the subtle ways the Republican Party is using its dominance in Washington to gain ground.
To Wagoner and his allies, conservatives in the Bush administration and Congress are slipping under public and media attention to spread abstinence-only models that critics say have yet to meet the standards of science – while trying to intimidate foes through audits and hurt them financially by changing funding priorities for a popular grants program.
“HHS appears to be using financial audits as a political tool to harass nonprofit department grantees,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson in October 2002, soon after the audits began.
To abstinence advocates, the Republicans are trying to balance a funding system that has long favored telling youth about how to have sex while turning up its nose at suggesting that they refrain from it.
“Sex education has been failing our kids,” says Abstinence Clearinghouse President Leslee Unruh, who says her group had been pressing HHS to boost abstinence funding. “The president told us he’d give us some parity, since billions of dollars already go toward sex education and condom education.”
Since 1996, when abstinence-only funding was written into the welfare reform law, abstinence programs have received $700 million in federal money, according to calculations by Advocates for Youth. An analysis of programs funded under the first authorization is being conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2005.
In the absence of such definitive research, the political battle goes like this:
Some of the recent troubles can be traced to September 2002, when Advocates for Youth, SIECUS and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America unveiled “No New Money” (www.nonewmoney.org), their lobbying device to oppose further funding of “abstinence-only-until-marriage” programs. The website provides a history of abstinence education, which it says has been funded by the government for two decades despite the fact that “there is still no peer-reviewed research that proves it is effective.”
The site prompted 24 Republican House members, led by Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, to write to HHS Secretary Thompson that very month. Pitts wrote that he was concerned that a “number of entities funded by taxpayers” were “misusing these public resources on lobbying, advocacy and public relations campaigns against federal abstinence education programs.”
Since then, Wagoner says, his Washington-based organization has been audited twice by the Centers for Disease Control (which is part of HHS) and once by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. The first CDC audit came after Advocates for Youth responded to the Pitts letter by offering to have CDC inspect its finances. The GAO audit and a second CDC audit, conducted in August, were requested by Pitts.
CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben says each CDC audit examined different areas of the organization.
The first CDC audit and the one by the GAO found no misconduct, according to the agencies. Harben said the results of the second CDC audit have not been released.
“We fully expect as a grantee to be audited,” Wagoner said, but he added, “one can only marvel at the spontaneity” of these audits.
SIECUS President Tamara Kreinin says her organization, based in New York, was also subject to three audits, all of which found SIECUS to be aboveboard.
When the second CDC audit of Advocates for Youth began in August, Waxman again weighed in. “Whether a group believes that abstinence is the only acceptable means of achieving AIDS prevention seems to be the determining factor in these auditing decisions,” he wrote to Thompson.
Pitts declined to be interviewed for this story.
Despite the audits, SIECUS and Advocates for Youth remain two of the CDC’s largest national grantees that support comprehensive sex ed approaches. Advocates for Youth has received just over $3 million from the CDC since 1998.
Meanwhile, Pitts’ Senate counterparts from Pennsylvania are pushing abstinence-only programming through HHS.
In fiscal 2003, Congress issued earmarks for 33 pregnancy prevention programs through the HHS budget, according to a review of earmarks by Youth Today. All 33, totaling $3.7 million, went to abstinence-only programs.
Thirty-one of them were inserted into the federal budget by Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, both Republicans from Pennsylvania. Five of them are in Pitts’ 16th congressional district.
A review of HHS earmarks over the two previous years found only two set aside for clearly abstinence-only efforts. One of them was for a Pennsylvania agency: the Bucks County Health Department, which got $50,000 to buy public service announcements promoting abstinence.
Money for the 2003 earmarks came from the State AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAPS), authorized under the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act at $714 million that year. According to guidelines published by the Health Resources and Services Administration (the HHS agency that administers the funding), ADAPS money is supposed to go for “medications for the treatment of HIV disease,” to “purchase health insurance for eligible clients,” or for “services that enhance access, adherence, and monitoring of drug treatments.”
The top Pennsylvania money-getter was Silver Ring Thing (SRT), based in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, which won a $700,000 earmark. SRT specializes in putting on two-hour, concert-like performances of skits, music and light shows that deal with sexuality issues. The performances take place in community centers, schools and arenas. At the end, youths in the audience are asked to wear a silver ring to symbolize their commitment to chastity until marriage (The rings are available for purchase at the events.)
SRT’s website says the program hopes to persuade 40,000 teens to make virginity pledges by 2004. Although the program does not require any commitment to God, SRT encourages youth to “invite God to help them keep their pledge.”
Delays and Changes
The most recent boost for abstinence programs – and a blow to comprehensive sex ed – came in October, when the CDC released its priorities for Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for grants issued by its Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH).
Many groups that conduct sexuality education, including Advocates for Youth and Girls Inc., have used DASH grants for some of their programs. But when the three-year grants issued in 1998 ran out, CDC didn’t issue new RFPs as expected. It continued the funding for a time, while streamlining DASH’s competitive health grants into one new request, released Oct. 8, with the money to come next May.
Advocates for Youth, with 60 percent of its money coming from private funding, could survive the gap even if it doesn’t get a new CDC grant. But at Girls Inc., assistant director for programs Bernice Humphrey says her program would probably be cut if it did not win a new grant from DASH.
The new RFP, through which a total of $9.6 million is available, reflects some significant shifts. It eliminated the priority for minority and high-risk youth (under which Girls Inc. won part of its grant) and added a category offering $900,000 for programs that “focus exclusively on helping school-age youth … remain or become abstinent.”
Comprehensive sex-ed advocates see the new abstinence category as another way to fund an unproven, politically driven approach. Kreinin, the SIECUS president, isn’t surprised. “I don’t think any agency whose funding is approved by Congress can escape political ideology,” she says.
At the Virginia-based Institute for Youth Development (IYD), which supports abstinence education, President Shepherd Smith says the DASH changes make sense.
“There is a trend away from sexual activity among youth,” he says. “I don’t think what DASH is doing negates programs that
have more comprehensive messages. It’s just acknowledging a trend.”
DASH staff contend that abstinence programs have received funding since 1999. It is more noticeable now, says Beth Patterson, the assistant director for program services at DASH, because DASH is consolidating its grant-making efforts as part of “the president’s management agenda.”
Former DASH director Lloyd Kolbe, who left the agency in August after 18 years and now teaches at Indiana University, says the new abstinence priority “continues what DASH has been trying to do over several years.”
“The CDC was pushing abstinence … long before” welfare reform in 1996, he says. “It just wasn’t as obvious, it wasn’t abstinence-only programs. In the past, the CDC focused predominantly on organizations taking a broader approach.”
But a need arose for more inclusion of abstinence-only groups, Kolbe says, largely because of the disconnect between sex ed policy activists and the state and local organizations they supposedly champion. While he has seen abstinence and comprehensive agencies collaborate at state houses, Kolbe sees the national arena as clouded by “polemics that have pitted themselves against each other.”
“They are trying to be more divisive than productive, and it’s not helping the kids,” he says of extremists on both sides of the debate.
IYD’s Smith says the abstinence grantees will not be as objectionable as Wagoner might expect. IYD, a current DASH grantee, may apply for one of the new grants even though it does not exclude contraception completely from its curriculum.
But DASH health education specialist Nassi Irannejad says that the money “goes to national nonprofit organizations … that would work with organizations that exclusively do abstinence activities.” Groups that include discussion of contraception, she says, should apply “under the other categories.”
James Wagoner, President
Advocates for Youth
2000 M St. NW, Suite 750
Washington, DC 20036
Leslee Unruh, President
801 E. 41st St.
Sioux Falls, SD 57105
“Federal Funds: Fiscal Year
by Selected Organizations
Involved in Health Related Activities”
U.S. General Accounting Office
Request or search for GAO-03-527R.
Abstinence and Miss America
Having completed her reign as Miss America for 2003, Erika Harold is touring the country promoting abstinence programming for youth.
Harold, who spent her year on the throne championing violence and bullying prevention for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, is returning to the work she did as Miss Illinois.
She is again the national spokeswoman for Project Reality, a nonprofit publisher of the “Game Plan” abstinence curriculum. She frequently speaks to youth about her decision to remain abstinent from sex, drugs and alcohol. That includes recently speaking at a national summit sponsored by Silver Ring Thing, an abstinence program that invites youth to wear a silver ring symbolizing a pledge to remain abstinent until marriage.
Harold’s abstinence advocacy became a big topic during her tenure, when The Washington Times reported that pageant officials had ordered her to stop talking about chastity.
However, her platform on the pageant’s website includes encouraging “young people to abstain from drugs, sex and alcohol and explain[ing] how this commitment helped me to protect, respect and define myself.”
Harold says pageant officials eventually compromised, allowing her to speak about abstinence, along with youth violence.