For the Record

Administration Tightens Rules for Abstinence Education Grants

Cynthia Dailard
The time is now. Will you stand up for reproductive health and rights?

First published online:

In August, public health officials in Maine announced that the state would reject federal funding for abstinence-only education for fiscal years 2005 and 2006, joining California and Pennsylvania as the only states to turn down the funding. Officials said they could no longer accept the state's annual $161,000 allotment given the federal government's recent move to tighten the rules that govern the program.

The program, which provides $50 million in annual grants to the states (and is matched by another $38 million in state funds), supports abstinence education programs that are required to conform to an infamous "eight-point definition" enshrined in section 510 of the federal Social Security Act. Some of the more controversial components of this definition include teaching "that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity" and "that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects" ("Legislators Craft Alternative Vision of Sex Education to Counter Abstinence-Only Drive," TGR, May 2002, page 1).

When the "section 510" program was first created in 1996 as part of the welfare reform law, however, the Clinton administration's program guidance noted that states need not "place equal emphasis on each element of the [eight-point] definition," but that "a project may not be inconsistent with any aspect of the abstinence education definition." This small measure of flexibility prompted enduring criticisms from some social conservatives, who charged that governors were cherry-picking which aspects of the eight-point definition they wanted to emphasize and therefore diluting the abstinence-only thrust of the program ("Abstinence Promotion and Teen Family Planning: The Misguided Drive for Equal Funding," TGR, February 2002, page 1).

In response to these charges, the Bush administration in the summer of 2004 formally moved the program from a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that houses the federal public health bureaucracy (the Health Resources and Services Administration) to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which runs the administration's marriage promotion and fatherhood programs, among other things. Many observers believed that this shift would lead to significant programmatic changes for the 510 program.

These concerns were not unfounded. ACF's new guidance for the section 510 program, issued in March 2005, is in fact more stringent: "To the extent possible," the guidance reads, "we strongly encourage each State to develop programs that place equal emphasis on each element of the abstinence education definition" [emphasis added]. This interpretation is now much more consistent with that of a separate federal program, also recently moved to ACF, that bypasses the states entirely and provides funding directly to community-based organizations for abstinence-only education (CBAE). Since the inception of the program in 2001, CBAE grantees—many of which are faith-based organizations and crisis pregnancy centers—have operated programs responsive to all elements of the eight-point definition.

Recent ACF guidance, moreover, also explicitly addresses, for the first time, the critical question of the role of contraceptive information in the CBAE program. Because one of the eight-point definition's planks requires funded programs to have as their "exclusive purpose, teaching the social, physiological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity," there has been a long-standing, but until now unwritten, programmatic prohibition on discussing the potential benefits of contraception in federally funded abstinence-only education programs. The agency's request for proposals for the $104 million allocated to the CBAE program for FY 2005, however, notes that "Sex education programs that promote the use of contraceptives are not eligible for funding under this announcement." Moreover, objectives in prior funding announcements designed to discourage "premature sexual activity" and "abstinence decisions" have been changed to "premarital sexual activity" and "abstinence-until-marriage decisions," respectively. Unlike the changes to the section 510 guidance, which are likely to affect the substantive content of funded programs, these changes may simply clarify that which was always implicit. In any event, they bring into sharp relief this administration's philosophy on the respective roles of abstinence, contraception and marriage in protecting young people—and in fact people of any age—from the potential harms associated with sexual activity.—C. Dailard