Years ago, I talked with an abstinence educator named Molly Kelly. She made an unforgettable observation. “Nobody makes any money on abstinence.”
In the ensuing sex-education debate, I have often heard ideological arguments. One side sees its opponents as radical, Kinsey-based, sexual libertines. The other side sees an army of religious zealots trying to force their sexual prudery on everyone. Besides ideology, there has also been a ferocious fight over money.
Frankly, this has puzzled me.
For starters, abstinence education represents “choice” - a sacred concept in Washington - in sex education, so it’s odd to hear it bashed.
Second, abstinence funding has always been chump change by Washington standards. In fact, it’s chump change compared with what Congress spends on its other reproductive health services to teens.
In 2008 alone, the Health and Human Services Department spent $785.8 million to prevent unwanted pregnancies and disease among teens, then-HHS Secretary Michael O. Levitt wrote in December to Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican.
This included $309.1 million for teen family-planning services and $300.2 million for teen-pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease (STD) and HIV/AIDS prevention. The remaining $176.5 million went for abstinence education.
Thus, less than 23 cents out of every dollar spent on teen sexual health went for abstinence education, Mr. Leavitt wrote.
So why the caterwauling over pocket change for abstinence?
The usual answers I get from abstinence opponents are that it doesn’t work, it leaves kids ignorant about how to use birth control, it doesn’t serve gay kids, and (off the record) it’s just a return to the bad old days when unenlightened, sex-hating harpies ran sex education.
What’s never mentioned, though, is how sexually active youth are part of the market for certain commercial sex- and disease-related products, and abstinent behavior reduces that market share.
Even writing that sounds crass. Personally, I support family planning and condoms.
But let me repeat a comment that Pam Mullarkey, founder of Project SOS in Jacksonville, Fla., made recently on an abstinence e-list. She was furious that the Obama administration’s 2010 budget defunds abstinence education and throws the money to other kinds of teen-pregnancy prevention programs.
“Giving them money is definitely a conflict of interest since they make money when teens have sex,” Mrs. Mullarkey wrote. “I would love to see a breakdown of the profits they make for the following: Birth control monthly charge, approx. $30 per girl. STD Testing. STD medication for each of the STDs they contract. Abortion for when the forget their birth control or they don’t work.
“No wonder they have spent so much money trying to destroy abstinence education - it directly costs them big bucks,” she told me in a phone interview.
By defunding abstinence, the Obama administration has reignited America’s sex-education debate. With the stakes so high, I expect advocates on both sides to take off the gloves.
I’ve already expressed dim hopes for the survival of abstinence education as we’ve known it. But should Congress decide to “follow the money,” as Mrs. Mullarkey suggests, who knows what might turn up.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washington times.com