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Congress: Despite the Bad Reviews, Abstinence Continues its Run

September 2007

Even with the Democrats in control, the House of Representatives has voted major extensions of the administration's abstinence education programs. In July, the full House passed the FY 2008 Health and Human Services (HHS) budget, including a $28 million (25%) increase in community-based abstinence-only education grants. The Senate Appropriations Committee version of the budget specifies a $28 million cut instead. The two versions will have to be reconciled in the fall. Also, rather than terminate the Title V grants to states for abstinence-only education, as widely expected (see HHSWatch, April 2007), the House voted to extend them for another two years. The Title V grants total $50 million per year from the federal government plus $37.5 million contributed by the states that distribute them.

As a "compromise," the House loosened the restrictions on the Title V grants so that they can now go to a program "which promotes abstinence and educates those who are currently sexually active or at risk of sexual activity about additional methods to prevent unintended pregnancy or reduce other health risks." Abstinence-plus, in a word. In contrast, the appropriation bill language defining the community-based grants continues to specifically exclude grantees from providing "any other education regarding sexual conduct."

The new Title V language also demands that the programs provide only information not "unsupported or contradicted by the preponderance of the peer-reviewed scientific literature." Then it goes on to restrict the grants to programs "based on a model that has been demonstrated to be effective in preventing unintended pregnancy, or in reducing the transmission of a sexually transmitted disease, including the human immunodeficiency virus." There are no programs that currently meet this standard. At most, abstinence programs have been found to reduce teens' sexual activity for a year or two, without an effect on STD rates (Brückner and Bearman, J Adolesc Health 2005). If the law were strictly enforced, nobody would qualify for the grants.

Of course, the Bush administration would be the final arbiters of the grant process. Then there are the 39 states that now accept Title V grants under HHS's strict abstinence-only guidelines. In the past, these bodies haven't been troubled much by scientific accuracy or evidence of effectiveness (see HHSWatch, November 2006). The new law may provide a new venue for debating abstinence education's merits, but it is difficult to see any change over the next two years in the way the Title V grants are administered, not to mention the larger community-based program.

Back to September 2007 issue of HHS Watch




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