Monday, April 5, 2010

$250 Million Too Much

With the health care reform law totaling 2,000 plus pages, it’s not surprising that some terms slipped through without much fanfare. Among the major changes, a provision passed without much discussion: $250 million in abstinence-only-education programs. Are you shocked? Outraged? You should be, and rightfully so. If you thought funding for failed abstinence-only programs ended with the Bush era….think again! In his wish for bipartisanship, Obama has done a disservice to millions of teenagers by funding programs that put them at an increased risk for unintended pregnancy and STIs.

$250 million over a period of five years will be allocated to states to fund abstinence-until-marriage programs. It is well-established that these programs are ineffective at preventing unplanned pregnancies or reducing the rate of STI transmission. In fact, in April 2008, a panel of public health experts testified “that there is no evidence base to support the current massive federal investment in abstinence-only programs.” Those who have been paying attention to the sex-ed debate were not surprised to learn that after years of restrictive funding for abstinence-only programs, teen pregnancy and abortions are on the rise for the first time in ten years. By not adequately addressing teens need for age-appropriate, scientifically based sexuality education, these programs will continue to put teens at an increased risk for STIs and pregnancy. Just one disturbing example of the serious lack of education, is the fact that 24% of teens believe that using more than one condom (double-bagging) is more effective at preventing pregnancy and reducing STI transmission.

Valerie Huber, the executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association believes an “overly sex-saturated culture” is a major contributor to teen sexual activity. If Huber’s hypothesis had any merit, any culture with a high exposure to sexual content would also have high incidents of teenage pregnancy. However, when we look at countries like France and Britain, where people are just as, if not more, sexually aware, her theory falls flat. With teen pregnancy rates four to two times less than the U.S., they must be doing something right. But guess what’s nowhere in sight? Yep, you got it – no abstinence only policies. According to Advocates For Youth, European youths have more access to low cost contraception (through their national health insurance) and sex-ed is an integral part of school curriculum, in which educators respond to all of students’ questions with accurate and comprehensive information. If politicians and advocates like Ms. Huber were truly concerned with reducing teen pregnancies, they would look to the successful methods of other countries rather than pushing for programs that are wrought with political and religious ideology.

It is clear that the best strategies for addressing teen pregnancy and STI rates involve ensuring youths have the correct information to make wise decisions about sex. The Obama administration has certainly taken a step towards better policies by including $75 million a year over the next five years for programs that teach abstinence and about contraception. An additional $114.5 million of the 2010 budget was designated for sex-ed programs that have been evaluated and proven to work (which, of course, excludes ab-only programs). While this overall shift is commendable, the continued funding for failed programs cannot be ignored. The health and welfare of America’s youth is too valuable to be used as a political bargaining chip. 

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