- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

First of two parts

The federal government’s abstinence education programs aren’t dead yet, but there’s already a fight over the programs’ funding.

The Title V abstinence education program, created in the 1996 welfare reform law, is set to expire June 30. Congress still has time to act, and abstinence proponents are trying to save it.

“Any public policy that undermines individual responsibility and moral restraint undermines the very foundation of America,” leaders of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse said last week after its big conference.

But in its 2010 budget, the Obama administration reallocated Title V’s $50-million-a-year funding — along with $127 million from other abstinence programs — to a new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative.

‘Comprehensive’ sex ed sought

The new initiative isn’t legislated yet, but budget language talked about funding programs that are proven to help teens delay sexual debut, increase contraception use or reduce teen pregnancy.

That’s way too narrow, leaders of Advocates for Youth (AFY) and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) said in a June 17 blog titled, “Failure to Launch: Obama’s New Teen Initiative Can Be Fixed and Here’s How.”

The Obama administration deserves applause for ending abstinence education, and “[p]reventing teen pregnancy is incredibly important. But unintended pregnancy among teens is not the only sexual and reproductive health issue facing our nation’s youth,” William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS, and James Wagoner, president of AFY, wrote at Web sites such as RHRealityCheck.org.

The best thing is to “expand the scope” of the initiative, they said. That way, HIV/AIDS and sexual disease prevention can be funded, as well as programs aimed at sexual life-skills training, mutual consent and identification of abusive relationships.

Moreover, a broader initiative can serve “all young people in all communities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, whose needs fall wholly outside of the narrow teen-pregnancy-prevention framework.”

Second, schools should get first dibs on the money, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wagoner wrote. Schools can institutionalize comprehensive sex education programs, so that “the widest range of teens” can be reached, but current language seems to exclude schools from competing for the funds.

Similar points were made in a June 16 letter to President Obama and congressional leaders, signed by 175 groups, including pro-choice, gay rights, AIDS prevention and women’s rights groups.

In interviews, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wagoner told me that the $177 million would be best used if it went for programs proven to have positive outcomes for youth.

“I don’t care if they’re healthy relationship programs or HIV prevention or teen pregnancy prevention or relationship violence programs,” Mr. Smith said. “If they have good outcomes, that’s what we should be looking at, not these disaster-aversion silos that don’t serve us well.”

“I think we’ve been very clear in giving the president credit for shifting tracks here in a big way” by ending abstinence education funding, said Mr. Wagoner. “But it’s our job to press for the right destination,” and then get it in writing.

For instance, he said, Cleveland public schools teach four comprehensive sex education curricula to all its students, kindergarten to 12th grade, and an evaluation has shown positive outcomes.

“We have received verbal assurances that something like Cleveland could, slash, would, might [be funded], but that’s not sufficient,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, it’s really important, at minimum, to get things stipulated in writing, he said. In their blog, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wagoner noted that in the 1990s, teen pregnancy prevention was “easily hijacked by social conservatives.”

That can’t be allowed to happen again. It’s time to “push for a firm foundation that will withstand changing political winds,” they warned.

Next week: Arguments for a teen pregnancy prevention focus.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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