White House responds to abstinence funding uproar

WASHINGTON (BP)--The White House released a statement to Baptist Press following President Obama's proposal to eliminate federal funding for abstinence education in the 2010 budget.

"The president is deeply committed to reducing levels of teen pregnancy and believes that parents, families, communities and the government must come together to address this issue," the statement said. "The budget increases overall funding for teenage pregnancy prevention, which may include education on abstinence, and supports programs based on research.

"In the budget, 75 percent of funding in a new teenage pregnancy prevention program will be directed to programs that have demonstrated by rigorous research to prevent teen pregnancy," the statement continued. "The rest of the funds will be directed to promising, but not yet proven, programs for which we have some indication that they achieve the goal of teen pregnancy prevention. Those programs would have to agree to participate in a rigorous evaluation and abstinence-only programs could qualify."

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, wondered if the statement means the Obama administration supports abstinence education if there is proof of effectiveness.

"Similarly, are they saying that they do not approve comprehensive sex education if there is not compelling proof of effectiveness?" Huber told Baptist Press.

If the bottom line really is that the administration wants to fund what works and what has promise of working to curb teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, then it doesn't make sense to cut abstinence education funding streams as proposed in the 2010 budget, she said.

"Also, by their making an overreaching, I think, decision to cut all abstinence programs, they are telling the 2.5 million students who are receiving those services that it's not important that those services continue," Huber said.

"For them to say in an official statement that abstinence could be funded and yet without looking at those programs that are currently being funded, stopping and zeroing them out, I think they're sending a mixed message," she said. "The message that they're sending to youth really is 'We're not going to support you with this approach.' Despite what they're saying, their actions are saying something different."

Huber said it's hard to predict exactly what types of programs would receive the support of the Obama administration because the statement is vague.

"Are they talking about specific individual programs that have peer-reviewed research showing effectiveness, or are they talking about an approach that has a science base to it?" she said. "If it's the latter, then abstinence education unequivocally should remain fully funded.

"If they're talking about individual programs, then they need to make a priority of defunding most comprehensive sex education programs immediately because there is paltry research of effectiveness despite decades of funding and billions of dollars in funding," Huber said.

If the administration is genuinely concerned about evidence of effectiveness, they should defund comprehensive sex education in the interim as well, Huber said. She referred to a recent congressional briefing where a researcher, Stan Weed, presented a meta-analysis of an array of published comprehensive sex education curriculums.

"He put them on a grid and compared their assertions to what their studies actually showed and found that not a single school-based comprehensive sex education curricula had compelling evidence for increasing consistent condom use. Not a single one," Huber said. "And very few showed that they had any evidence of decreasing pregnancy or STDs or anything."

Also, Huber said Doug Kirby, a researcher and a major proponent of comprehensive sex education, is on the record saying the Mathematica study, which was commissioned by Congress and found abstinence education lacking, should not be used to determine the effectiveness of abstinence education. Huber expressed hope that the Obama administration would take a closer look at the most recent evidence, rather than relying on outdated data such as what was used in the Mathematica report.

"I think it's really important that they don't listen to the sound bites of motivated special interest groups to devise their policy," Huber said. "Secondly, they need to look at the full body of research regarding both abstinence education and comprehensive sex education if they're truly interested in what is making an effective difference in the lives of teens across the United States. I don't see evidence that they're really doing either of those things."

The term "abstinence-only," as used in the White House statement and in various media reports, is a misnomer, Huber said, because it implies that abstinence education simply promotes a "just say no" approach to sex. A more accurate representation would be "abstinence-centered," she said.

"Abstinence education provides skills that are important for all of their life decisions. It goes far beyond just saying no to having sex," she said.

"It's helping them identify what is a healthy relationship or how and why they should get out of an unhealthy relationship, the importance of setting goals for their lives -- goals beyond this weekend or even the end of high school -- and then recognizing that deciding whether to have sex very much plays into whether they're going to reach those goals because of the potential consequences. The programs also talk about the interconnectedness of other risk behaviors and good decision-making.

"... That total package really has an impact upon the students, and that's why students who many people would say, 'This student is hopeless. The best we can do is hope that they will use a condom the next time they have sex,' are saying that as a result of abstinence education programs their lives have completely turned around and they are on a completely different track -- one that is headed for a whole lot of new and previously undiscovered success," Huber said.

By contrast, comprehensive sex education is characterized by a basic message that assumes teenagers are going to engage in sexual activity and therefore they should use contraceptives -- mainly condoms.

"That's very one-dimensional. It's not talking about how sex impacts the whole person, and even Dr. Kirby who is the primary researcher for comprehensive sex education has said it's easier to encourage teens to wait to have sex than for them to use a condom," Huber said. "If even they acknowledge that, then why aren't they making a higher priority on the approach that's going to remove all the risk?"

Abstinence education programs take on several forms, including those that are school-based and those that are community-based. In public schools, students may receive abstinence education in health classes or personal development classes. Such programs may be taught by an outside educator who is federally funded or by an established teacher at the school who has been trained in the curriculum using abstinence funding.

In other cases, students receive abstinence education at local community centers in after school programs or Boys and Girls Clubs, Huber said.

Because of the impact such programs have had in so many success stories, Huber suggested challenging the Obama administration to retract their original budget request and continue abstinence education with the understanding that they are seeking to fund programs that are effective.

"And if they're continuing comprehensive sex education within the current funding streams, they should also put those parameters on it," Huber said.


Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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