Evidence, Evidence, Evidence. Except for Abstinence-only Education.

I’m sure anyone who’s glanced at the news over this past week or so has noticed that a bipartisan budget deal has passed both the House and the Senate. We avoided another shutdown. Big yays all around. There is definitely cause for celebration, and means that at least Congress can pretend to work together for a minute.

However, if you care about health, young people, education, separation of church and state, or good public policy, a specific provision in the budget deal may be frustrating for you. I find it frustrating, to say the least.

Now, I’m sure there are several other provisions within this budget that will make me cranky when they come to light. But thanks to reporting by Talking Points Memo and others, we now know that abstinence-only education is not entirely dead and gone. And not only is it alive and kicking, it may receive $250 million in federal funding over 5 years (if appropriated), thanks to a sneaky effort by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to tack it onto the Affordable Care Act.

So, why do we care that ideologues continue to push for funding to abstinence-only programs when we know that it doesn’t work? The same reason that 9 Democrats have introduced the “Repealing Ineffective and Incomplete Abstinence-Only Program Funding Act of 2013” – because it’s a waste of money and we’ve spent over $1.75 billion on it since 1996.

Oh, and also… “Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have been discredited by a wide body of evidence, including a Congressionally-mandated study in 2007.” That too.

We should be worried about the fact that ab-only could continue to receive federal funds for two reasons:

  1. The negative health outcomes from ab-only education are particularly burdensome for girls and young women. This isn’t rocket science. A teen mom dealing with an unwanted pregnancy is the one dropping out of school, getting kicked out by her parents, working a minimum wage job to make ends meet, having to decide if she wants to access abortion services, applying for food stamps (which were recently cut in a related budget deal), and a host of other complex challenges. Young women experience the “you play, you pay” message of ab-only education when it fails them.
  2. Comprehensive sexuality education works. And on the funny flip side (and by funny, I mean tear your hair out ridiculous and enraging…), comprehensive sexuality education is proven to help young people make healthy, informed choices about their sexual lives, including whether or not to abstain. In fact, the evidence shows that when young people have information and resource, they choose to abstain longer and when they do begin having sex, they do so with information about contraception, dating violence and other sexual health facts like how to prevent STIs and HIV.

Let’s make sure this is clear: Ab-only education puts young people at risk. This is not news. Back in 2002 (yep, over 10 years ago…) research began stacking up from the Guttmacher Institute and others that explains why teen pregnancy rates are higher in the US than in other countries.

[…] the United States is the only country with formal policies directing state and federal funds toward educational programs that have as their sole purpose the promotion of abstinence. Over one-third (35%) of all local U.S. school districts that have policies on sexuality education require that abstinence be taught as the only appropriate option for unmarried people and that contraception either be presented as ineffective in preventing pregnancy or not be covered at all. Among school districts in the South—where birthrates are significantly higher than the national average—that proportion is 55%.

And in fact, 23 states + the District of Columbia stopped accepting ab-only funds to date because the ab-only programs were discovered to be a waste of money. You couldn’t PAY states to teach their kids ab-only, versus taking a comprehensive approach.

In the time of tightly guarded purse strings and budget cuts, there’s no reason to spend $250 million on bad policy. In the words of Harvey V. Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine in 2008, before the 110th Congress: “I believe public funds should support programs that are well grounded in evidence. By this standard, public financing and wide deployment of abstinence-only programs does not constitute sound fiscal or public health policy.”

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Categories: Health, Politics

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