Abstaining from criticism

Congressional Democrats, when in the minority, assailed federal programs that encouraged sexual abstinence. Now, to the surprise of many, the party in power has kept the programs alive.

In Focus -- Health

October 19, 2007|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANNGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In the 1990s, amid a growing so-called culture war over the role of religion and morality in public policy, Republicans used their congressional majorities to crank up funding for programs that encouraged teens to abstain from sex until marriage.

But now, even though Democrats have taken over Congress, so-called abstinence-only programs are surviving attempts to shut them down. And they could even get an increase with the aid of an unlikely ally -- Rep. David R. Obey, one of the old liberal lions.

"We're expecting funding to be pretty comparable to what it was in the past," said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association. "Those who oppose abstinence education are probably more surprised than I am."

Democrats have long criticized the programs as ineffective in combating teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, because they do not include instruction in the use of condoms.

Expectations that a Democratic-controlled Congress would gut abstinence-only education rose this spring after a major federally funded study concluded that such programs do not appear to have any effect on sexual abstinence among youths, nor on their age of sexual initiation or number of sex partners.

But the oldest abstinence program won a reprieve last month. Also, a second, more important companion program could get a significant funding increase. The reason: Led by Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, some Democrats suddenly are protecting it.

Obey, who leads the House Appropriations Committee, is supporting abstinence-only education, saying he wants to steer his panel away from the highly charged terrain of moral issues. By increasing funding for such programs, he also is making a political calculation that he can pick up Republican support for much bigger health and social welfare programs that the White House wants to cut.

But the Senate could take a different direction. Committee leaders in that chamber are trying to reduce funding for abstinence-only education, but individual senators are expected to try to undo that bid. The issue could flare up soon on the floor of the Senate during debate about legislation to fund the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

The reversal of fortunes for abstinence-only education has caused political discomfort for Democrats. "I've made clear to my colleagues that I don't believe abstinence-only is an effective approach, or that it makes sense to increase funding," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and one of the programs' most prominent critics. "I haven't been able to prevail on the issue of appropriations but plan to continue to fight for better programs for youth."

In 2004, Waxman issued a report cataloging a series of inaccuracies in the curricula of abstinence-only programs.

Reflecting the sensitivity of the intraparty feud, Obey's office declined a request for an interview.

Some foes of abstinence-only education are feeling abandoned.

"The Democrats, and most notably Henry Waxman, used the abstinence-only issue as the cornerstone of the claim that the Bush administration was putting ideology and politics ahead of science," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit policy organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health. "Now they suddenly have gone mute and silent when their own people are in power."

Wagoner supports what is known as "comprehensive sex education," which includes instruction on abstinence and condoms and is the leading alternative to abstinence-only programs.

Supporters of abstinence-only education are relishing the squabble.

"My sense is that moderate Democrats in particular do not want to be saddled with killing abstinence education," said Robert Rector, a senior policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Certainly, for the freshman Democrats, that would be a very difficult vote. People do not want the Democratic Party, after it has taken over Congress, to be out in front saying, `We are jettisoning abstinence education and going back to condoms for all kids.'" Rector is one of the original advocates of federal funding for abstinence-only education.

At issue is a small slice of federal spending -- about $200 million in a $2.9 trillion budget. But it has oversized political implications.

As defined in law, abstinence-only education has as its "exclusive purpose" to teach the "social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity." It teaches that sex outside of marriage is "likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." Many supporters of abstinence-only programs say that education in the use of condoms and other contraceptives undermines the abstinence message.

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