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Et tu, Democrats?! Abstinence-Only Sex Education and The Politics of the Budget

Doctors of Conscience After nearly seven years of the George W. Bush presidency and its regressive sexual and reproductive politics, it is no surprise that this administration continues to staunchly support "abstinence-only sex  education."  The fact that study after study—including one commissioned by Congress itself has shown these programs to be ineffective does not trouble this president, who, in the face of inconvenient findings, has consistently allowed  ideology  to trump science.  Whether the issue is global warming or weapons of mass destruction or condom effectiveness, this administration is infamous for, as a Bush administration official—famously and unapologetically—put it, "creating its own reality." (New York Times magazine, October 17, 2004).

And it is no surprise that the Republican candidates for president support abstinence-only programs. This issue remains of great symbolic importance to the Religious Right base of the Republican Party. Though some observers say this movement is in decline, evangelicals remain very influential in the nominating process (witness Mike Huckabee’s recent meteoric rise), and candidates cannot afford to offend them on this issue. (And to be sure, abstinence-only is more than just symbolically important to many on the right; as The Nation so ably detailed, in "The Abstinence Gluttons," those  who receive  contracts to deliver these programs are raking in millions).

But Democrats supporting "abstinence-only," especially after the November 2006 election, when they regained control of the House and Senate?!  A powerful Democratic committee chair proposing to give even more to these programs than the Bush administration has asked for?!  No, this is not a Saturday Night Live or Jon Stewart parody. This is Washington politics. In a move that stunned advocates for "comprehensive" sex education—that is, programs that include discussion of both abstinence and birth control options—Congressman Dave Obey of Wisconsin, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, proposed increasing by $28 million the current abstinence-only allocation of $113 million. Obey made this move in order to lure Republican votes for Congress’s main domestic spending bill.    (In fairness, an equal increase was suggested for Title X, a federal family planning program that has been consistently under-funded during the Bush years.)

This (mis)appropriation may not see the light of day, given the wrangling taking place on the hill, but whatever transpires in the next few weeks, reproductive justice advocates are deeply demoralized  to see how casually an issue of such intense importance could be horse traded away.

With one breathtakingly cynical move, the Democratic leadership has now stamped its brand on one of the biggest ideological boondoggles in congressional history. More disturbingly, they have placed the health and safety of young people at risk by promoting programs that spread ignorance in the era of HIV/AIDS. Placing politics before public health and ideology over science have now become bipartisan follies. (James Wagoner,, Nov.1, 2007)

What exactly is abstinence-only sex education, and why are its opponents so distressed over Obey’s cynical maneuvers? Briefly, this form of sex education has its roots in the Reagan era of the 1980s, when a newly formed Religious Right started to expect payback in the domestic policy realm for its work on behalf of Reagan’s election.  The Reagan administration funded programs known colloquially as “Chastity Centers,” typically administered by church-affiliated groups, and then, as now, such programs became embroiled in lawsuits over issues of  church/state separation.

Abstinence-only funding received major boosting as part of the landmark 1996 welfare reform measure (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act).  The administration of George W. Bush increased abstinence funding even more.  In total, in the words of Congressman Henry Waxman, one of the program’s leading critics, "American taxpayers appear to have paid over one billion dollars for programs that have no impact."

Abstinence-only programs infuriate its critics both for what such programs don’t say and what they do say. Programs receiving federal funding are not allowed to mention contraception "except to point out (grossly inaccurate) failure rates. Abortion, needless to say, cannot be presented as an acceptable option in the face of unwanted pregnancy, though many programs are able to get away with unsupportable statements about high suicide rates of abortion patients and the discredited link between abortion and breast cancer.

What abstinence-only programs must address includes the following: "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity," "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects," "bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society."

In a devastating exposé of abstinence-only programs, Waxman’s staff found widespread misinformation and outright lies being told to young people. Most notoriously, some programs were teaching that HIV could be spread by "sweat and tears." Overall, the report concluded that, "over 80% of the abstinence-only curricula contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health."  (Complete report)

Meanwhile, according to James Wagoner, every day in the United States some ten thousand young people get an STD, two thousand become pregnant and fifty-five contract HIV. These threats to young Americans’ health and wellbeing  are what your tax dollars are not addressing. At least not in the thirty-six states that still accept abstinence-only funding.


Carole Joffe is a professor of sociology at the U.of California, Davis.  She is the author of Doctors of Conscience: the Struggle to provide Abortion before and after Roe v Wade (Beacon Press, 1996).  She is currently at work on a book about contemporary abortion provision.