Health Law Gives Abstinence-only Programs New Life

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The health care reform law that President Barack Obama signed into law March 23 to help Americans get access to health insurance also took abstinence-only education off life support.

Those who favor a more comprehensive approach to sex education also won a $75 million allocation for evidence-based sex education in the measure (in addition to $110 million for teen pregnancy prevention provided in fiscal 2010), but the clear victory went to those who support counseling youths to abstain from sex until marriage. The new law provides $250 million for these types of programs over the next five years.

The Obama administration had let the so-called Title V program expire and comprehensive sex education supporters thought it would disappear forever. Senate lawmakers, however, amended their health care bill to restore the $50 million-a-year state fund for abstinence education. Because the House had to approve the Senate version of health care and did not opt to strip out the funds in a bill to fix that measure, the abstinence account remained and is slated for life through 2014.

Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that vehemently opposes these programs, said in a statement that lawmakers should have acted on “any number of opportunities” to remove the abstinence-only funding from the bill, which it said wastes taxpayers’ money on programs that research shows do not work.

Those on the other side of the debate – whose case was recently bolstered by a federally funded study showing that abstinence can be effective in delaying sexual activity – had the opposite reaction. “We are encouraged that funding will continue so that the important sexual health message of risk avoidance will reach American teens,” Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said in a statement. 

Huber added that the health care law provides “considerably more” for comprehensive sex education, funding that Advocates for Youth cheered. Indeed, the late revival of the nearly dead abstinence-only program ensures that these funding and policy tussles over sex education will continue for years to come.