For the Record

The Other Shoe Drops: Federal Abstinence Education Program Becomes More Restrictive

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

First published online:

In 2004, the Bush administration announced that it was transferring administration of its pet abstinence-only education program from the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Health Resources and Services Administration to its more ideologically driven Administration for Children, Youth and Families. Many observers noted at the time that programmatic changes were likely to follow, and a January 2006 notice of grant availability seems to confirm that the day of reckoning for the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program has finally come. In expanding CBAE’s long-standing eight-point definition of what constitutes a fundable abstinence program to 13 "themes," and then expounding at length on recommended curricula content, the announcement lays bare as never before the administration’s hardened approach to premarital abstinence promotion and the denigration of contraception, as well as their putative relationship to "healthy" marriage.

Defining abstinence. For the first time, the grant announcement defines the meaning of abstinence and sexual activity: "Abstinence means voluntarily choosing not to engage in sexual activity until marriage. Sexual activity refers to any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse." While this expansive definition may have been intended in part to respond to research suggesting that abstinence education, and virginity pledges in particular, may be causing some youth to engage in anal or oral sex in order to preserve their virginity, it is so broad as to include even kissing.

Contraception. Since CBAE’s inception, the federal government has interpreted the requirement within its statutory, eight-point definition that funded programs have as their "exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity" to preclude any positive discussion of contraception. That interpretation, however, never appeared in writing—until now. Indeed, the January announcement clarifies with great precision and detail the role of contraception in CBAE-funded curricula. A funded program, according to the announcement, "must not promote contraception and/or condom use (as opposed to risk elimination)" or "promote or encourage the use of any type of contraceptives outside of marriage." At the same time, the announcement encourages programs to teach that "contraception may fail to prevent teen pregnancy and that sexually active teens using contraception may become pregnant"; "the published failure rates associated with contraceptives relative to pregnancy prevention, including ’real use’ versus trial or ’laboratory use,’ human error, product defect, teen use and possible side effects of contraceptives"; and "the limitations of contraception to consistently prevent STDs."

Marriage. The announcement is clear that an important goal of the CBAE program is to prepare young people for marriage—which it defines as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as a husband and wife." Accordingly, programs must emphasize "that the best life outcomes are more likely obtained if an individual abstains until marriage"; "that non-marital sex can undermine the capacity for healthy marriage, love and commitment"; and "that abstinence is beneficial in preparation for successful marriage and significantly increases the probability of a happy, healthy marriage." The announcement also encourages funded curricula to promote the moral value of abstinence, including that "abstinence reflects qualities of personal integrity and is honorable."

Medical accuracy. Apparently responding to charges that CBAE curricula are rife with medical and scientific inaccuracies, the program announcement explicitly states that curricula must contain references for factual information provided about contraceptive failure rates and side effects, as well as the harms associated with STDs. In sharp contrast, similar references are not required to support statements regarding the benefits of abstinence—or statements about its purported 100% effectiveness in preventing pregnancy and disease. Indeed, the announcement flatly prohibits programs from even referring to abstinence "as a form of contraception," presumably to shield it from the programmatic requirement that failure rates be discussed for all contraceptive methods.

In a February 16 letter to DHHS Secretary Michael Leavitt, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform, called for the entire grant announcement’s retraction. "The new guidelines eliminate the requirement that federally funded abstinence-only education programs have health-based goals," he said, and if that omission is allowed to stand, "funding for abstinence education will be awarded based on ideology, not the effectiveness of programs in reducing teen sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and teen sexually transmitted disease rates." Waxman called this "a dangerous development, especially since the amount of federal funding for abstinence-only education is increasing rapidly."

As, indeed, it is. As Waxman’s letter notes, funding for CBAE—currently at $113 million—has risen 465% since the program’s inception just five years ago. For FY 2007, the administration has requested an additional $28 million for this most restrictive of the three federal abstinence programs, which bypasses state governments and makes grants directly to local abstinence-only organizations, including faith-based organizations. The administration, moreover, has promised to increase total funding for abstinence-only education from its FY 2007 request of $204 million to $270 million by FY 2009—with all future increases likely to go to CBAE, as they have ever since President Bush took office.

—Cynthia Dailard