In its 2010 budget proposal, the Obama administration defunds two major abstinence-education programs and replaces them with teen-pregnancy prevention programs.
This is not unexpected.
In fact, stamping out the foolish, wasteful, dangerous, "abstinence-only" programs, as they have been described by their opponents, is a political must-do for congressional Democrats.
I have reported on abstinence education since it appeared in the 1996 welfare reform law. I have a proposal to make but first a little history.
When abstinence education was set in law 12 years ago, liberals gasped at its eight-point definition. They were incredulous that any federally funded program would require people to teach school-age children, including those in high school, that sexual abstinence was "the expected standard" for them.
Another foul ball was the abstinence law's claim that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects." (How anti-sex can you get? critics said.)
But the biggest sin in the law was its terrible, horrible, outrageous, evil, wrong, no-good assertion that a "mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity."
In other words, all Americans were supposed to save sex for marriage.
You can't imagine the apoplexy this stirred in the sex-positive groups, feminist groups, civil rights groups, academics and, of course, the young and the restless. Gay-rights groups were particularly offended because, back in 1996, when none could marry, they interpreted the law to say, "No sex for you, ever."
For 12 years, scorn has been heaped on abstinence education for these and other reasons. Sadly, some abstinence grantees helped fuel the hatred when they crossed the line and injected religion into their programs.
Now that the White House has zeroed out abstinence funding, there will be a grass-roots fight to save it.
But in all candor, it's likely that abstinence education as we've known it is kaput. Most of its Republican champions have retired or moved to other issues, and any Democrat who stands up for abstinence will undoubtedly face withering attack. I am guessing that includes now-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter, who has poured about $10 million in earmarked abstinence funds into Pennsylvania over the years.
My two-cents proposal? Make "abstinence until 20" the public-health message for unmarried youth. With one stroke, we would send the message that sex is for adults.
Saving sex until 20 takes direct aim at unwed teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. It gives cover to high-school kids and college-age teens who don't want to be pressured into sex. It helps both heterosexual and homosexual youth reject the advances of older sexual predators.
It also meshes with what we know about brain development and judgment. Compared to teens, a 20-year-old virgin is more likely to choose his or her first sexual partner with care. They can insist on contraception and use it more effectively. They can even decide to keep their pants on until their wedding day.
I am guessing this abstinence-until-20 idea won't please any advocates in this polarized debate, but I think it lines up with what mainstream America wants. "Sex is for adults" is a sound social message that got discarded a few decades ago. I think it's time to bring it back.
Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.