- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

Second of two parts

Since May, when the Obama administration’s 2010 budget redirected all abstinence-education funding to a new teen-pregnancy-prevention initiative, there has been cheering in some quarters.

“As far as I can tell, what the president is proposing is the first really focused expenditure on effective teen-pregnancy-prevention programs,” said Sarah Brown, chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “From our perspective, the notion of a focused, evidence-based initiative to reduce teen pregnancy is terrific.”

Congress hasn’t written the new initiative yet, but it is expected to have a budget of $177 million.

Abstinence funds at center of fight

Mrs. Brown is not alone in applauding President Obama’s shift away from what she called “abstinence-only interventions,” but not everyone has jumped onto the teen-pregnancy-prevention bandwagon.

James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth and William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States have recently reminded Mr. Obama how, as a candidate, he spoke “eloquently” about ushering in the “first-ever federal program supporting comprehensive sex education.”

He can do that, they said, by taking his new initiative beyond teen pregnancy, so it can tackle subjects like sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), abusive relationships and the needs of youth who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

About 175 organizations echoed Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Wagoner’s arguments in a June 16 letter to Mr. Obama and congressional leaders.

Mrs. Brown, however, believes the president has exactly the right idea, at the right time.

In the last two years, America’s teen birthrate has increased, ending a 14-year downward trend.

These upticks have “major implications for the economy, for poverty, for the quality of the work force, a lot of issues that are central to economic recovery,” she said. “There’s a new group of kids that turns 13 every year, and all the reasons we were worried about [teen pregnancy] before remain. And even with all the declines, the United States still has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and birth in the entire industrialized world.”

When asked about the calls to broaden the new initiative, Mrs. Brown downplayed any friction.

“First of all, please understand, my organization’s mission focuses on preventing teen pregnancy as well as unintended pregnancy, especially among single young adults,” she said. “So we, of course, applaud the focus.”

What’s most exciting is that the new initiative will only fund programs that have been proven to impact teens’ lives, she said.

The best programs will have an effect on one or more of three outcomes — delaying age of first sex, use of contraception and/or actual teen pregnancy, she said.

However, most of these same programs also address sexual disease, and are therefore very broad in their emphasis. “So we don’t really see much tension here,” she said.

In addition, she said, “I think the Obama administration has called for development of a national AIDS strategy, and I hope that, as part of an overall AIDS strategy, all of these issues of who’s doing what with what sums of money, will be taken up in a comprehensive framework.”

As for needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender youth, Mrs. Brown agreed that this “very important constituency” had not been a major focus of the national campaign, which was started in 1996 to reduce teen pregnancy by a third in 10 years and has a new goal to reduce teen pregnancy by another third by 2015.

“I would expect that some of these effective [teen pregnancy prevention] curricula have material on that [issue of gay youth]; that would just be my guess. But again we haven’t looked at that,” she said.

In sum, regarding a Capitol Hill tug-of-war over the mission of the new initiative, “I think there’s sort of less here than meets the eye,” Mrs. Brown said. “At least I hope so. You know we seek peace in the land.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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