A federal abstinence-education program is set to expire next week. Funny, this is the same story line I was writing in another June - 15 years ago.
I don’t know why, but when Democrats take control of the White House and Congress, ending abstinence education, which they denounce as “abstinence only,” becomes a priority.
In 1994, the Clinton administration’s target was a tiny program called Title XX Adolescent Family Life (AFL).
AFL received $6.8 million a year - with about one-third of that for abstinence education - and was the federal government’s only funding stream for abstinence-based pregnancy prevention.
But in its fiscal 1995 budget, the Clinton administration zeroed out AFL and put the money in a new Office of Adolescent Health. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala told Congress that the new office was needed to address a host of teen issues. She reassured Congress that abstinence programs could still be funded - as long as they were “comprehensive,” i.e., taught safer-sex techniques.
Republicans, who were in the minority in Congress, protested the loss of the sole federal abstinence-education program, especially because Congress was spending tens of millions of dollars for contraception education and services.
“Teenagers may not read the federal budget, but they’re smart enough to figure out what message Uncle Sam is sending,” Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said at a June 1994 news conference.
In the end, enough members of both parties complained, and AFL’s $6.8 million was restored.
Later that year, Republicans took over Congress, and in 1996, with bipartisan support, created the $50 million-a-year Title V abstinence-education grant program as part of the welfare reform law. In 2000, Congress created a third, larger stream of abstinence funding known as Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE).
In May, however, the Obama administration’s fiscal 2010 budget zeroed out both Title V and CBAE and transferred their funds to a new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative that rejects an abstinence-only approach. The AFL’s $13 million was similarly redirected.
The Title V program expires June 30, and I imagine there are more than a few bottles of champagne cooling, ready to pop at 12:01 a.m. July 1.
Comprehensive-sex-education groups have loathed Title V from its inception. According to them, the program’s defects were its prohibition on teaching teens how to use birth-control products (i.e., no condom demonstrations), and its eight-point definition that seemed utterly unrealistic to sex educators.
Title V’s definition, for instance, said that the “expected standard of human sexual activity” was a “mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage.” This, I heard many times, was insulting to gay youth who couldn’t marry (at least until recently) and insensitive to minority youth who grew up in neighborhoods where marriage was rare.
What will happen to Title V?
Critics and their allies are staying vigilant; they don’t want any last-minute, back-door revivals of this program.
Groups such as the National Abstinence Education Association are working the phones too. Saving Title V will require some heavy lifting, but “it’s expired before and been retroactively renewed,”association Executive Director Valerie Huber said.
For the rest of us, this is a core culture-war battle come full circle; we’ll soon see what happens with the new players in town.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.