For the Record

New Bush Administration Policy Promotes Abstinence Until Marriage Among People in their 20s

Cynthia Dailard
Reproductive rights are under attack. Will you help us fight back with facts?

First published online:

Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reform law that launched the federal government's first major investment in abstinence-only education, the Bush administration announced a new set of restrictions on the $50 million abstinence education grant program to the states. The new restrictions outlined in yet another program guidance represent the latest in a series of policy changes adopted by the administration since it transferred its major abstinence education programs from the division of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) responsible for administering the public health bureaucracy to the more ideologically driven Administration on Children, Youth and Families just over two years ago.

Across the state program's 10-year history, a central and persistent question has been how much latitude the states should have in interpreting the welfare law's infamous eight-point definition of what constitutes a fundable abstinence program. Two of the definition's eight planks, for example, require that programs teach that sex outside of marriage will likely have harmful physical and psychological effects and that a mutually faithful monogamous marriage is the expected standard of human sexual behavior. The Clinton administration, for its part, opted to provide states with some latitude to select which of the planks they wished to emphasize, as long as their programs did not contradict any of them.

In contrast, the Bush administration's evolving policy has increasingly tied the states' hands (related article, November 2005, page 13). Current policy stipulates that "Each element…should be meaningfully represented in all grantee's Federally funded abstinence education programs and curricula." And while states have always been prohibited from promoting or advocating contraceptive use in their federally funded abstinence programs (implicitly under Clinton and explicitly under Bush), they must now go so far as to provide assurances that they are taking measures to ensure that funded programs and curricula "do not promote contraception and/or condom use." Together, these new requirements reflect the administration's growing desire to ferret out state-run abstinence education programs that do not contain sufficiently "authentic" abstinence-until-marriage content. They also help to achieve the administration's goal of bringing the state grant program more in line with its more restrictive sister program, which provides federal grants directly to community-based organizations for education programs designed to discourage sexual stimulation of any kind among unmarried individuals, regardless of age (related article, Winter 2006, page 19).

According to the new guidance, moreover, the states must now target "adolescents and/or adults within the 12- through 29-year-old age range" in their programming, signaling that the federal government will no longer allow states to use their federal funds to support programs targeting preadolescents. This is likely to require governors to significantly redirect their existing programs, given that the states have most commonly targeted youth ages 9–14—an age-group in which few individuals are sexually experienced. (In fact, the administration in May threatened to deny New Mexico its grant allotment if it continued to use its funds to target children in grades six and younger.)

At the other end of the age range, the administration is placing a new emphasis on promoting abstinence among people in their 20s, because "contrary to popular opinion, the highest rates of out-of-wedlock births occur among women in their twenties, not among teens." The guidance provides some examples of focal populations the states should consider, including "students at a local university, college or technical school"; "single adults involved in a local community or community-based organization"; and even "single parents in their twenties" (emphasis added). However, with women and men typically delaying marriage until ages 25 and 27, respectively, the administration's goal of persuading adolescents and young adults to postpone sex approximately a decade beyond the age they typically first have sex (age 17) now appears clearer than ever before; at the same time, it may be ever more elusive and unrealistic.—Cynthia Dailard