- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

With Congress, it’s never say never, but Tuesday may very well mark the end of a core abstinence-education program.

The legislative expiration of the Title V Abstinence Education program — created in 1996 to distribute $50 million to states for activities meeting an unprecedented, eight-point definition of abstinence education — will be just the first domino to fall.

The Obama administration has asked that the fiscal 2010 funding of Title V — plus that of the Community-Based Abstinence Education and Adolescent Family Life programs (about $177 million) — be redirected to a teen-pregnancy prevention initiative.

Congress has yet to craft the new program, and there’s a tug of war going on between comprehensive-sex-education advocates and teen-pregnancy-prevention advocates over the mission of the new program. More on that in other columns.

But what about abstinence education? Where does the movement go from here?

Longtime abstinence proponents predict a range of responses. Some think the movement will return to the grass roots and seek funds from abstinence-friendly communities, private sources and religious groups. Others plan on dogging congressional allies to figure out how to revive at least a few federal dollars for abstinence education.

Leslee Unruh, president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, which just held a big conference for educators, said her group identifies with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said, “Defeat? We don’t know the meaning of that word.”

Mrs. Unruh also predicted a political backlash, because many parents support abstinence education even if many American policy leaders and intelligentsia do not.

An immediate effect of the funding change, however, is that some abstinence educators will change their programs to accommodate the new funding rules, said one abstinence proponent, who is an insider on policy talks and asked not to be identified.

“I think you will find out who the true believers [in abstinence education] are pretty quickly,” the proponent said.

These “true believers” will figure out how to run their abstinence programs “on a much smaller budget,” but they will not go away, the proponent added. Abstinence educators “have established themselves in lots of schools and lots of communities, and I don’t think they’re going to be easily removed. I don’t think the federal dollar to most people in the abstinence community is, in the end, all that important. The issue is more important to them.”

LeAnna Benn, founder of Teen-Aid in Spokane, Wash., said that losing federal abstinence dollars will make it harder to teach teens about healthy friendships and relationships.

Instead, she said, youths will get classes aimed at teaching them about the products and services they will need when they become sexually active. Washington state, for instance, mandates comprehensive sex education, she said, “and the main learning objective is to make sure kids know how to get the family planning … it’s all about referrals.”

Mrs. Benn, who has taught abstinence education since 1978, is also confident that once the abstinence money is fully redirected, its opponents will start ignoring it again.

“You can quote me on this: As soon as there is no more abstinence money, family planners will quit talking about abstinence,” she said. “I’ve been through these cycles before.”

But she, too, predicted that abstinence supporters won’t give up. “We have to think about regrouping, banking our resources, to fight another day,” she said.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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