Washington Watch

Restrictions tighten on abstinence programs

By Cynthia Dailard
Senior Public Policy Associate
Guttmacher Institute
Washington, DC

While running for president in 2000, then-Republican candidate George W. Bush promised that his answer to the problem of teenage pregnancy would be to dramatically increase federal funding for abstinence-only education. Sure enough, President Bush has made good on that pledge. Since taking office, federal funding for abstinence-only education has risen from $60 million to $177 million. The president has requested an additional $28 million for next year and has proposed raising the total funding to $270 million by the administration's end.

Not unexpectedly, the administration has also instituted several policy changes — some draconian in nature. Such change was heralded when the administration, in the summer of 2004, announced that it was transferring administration of the two largest abstinence programs from the Health Resources and Services Administration [the division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responsible for administering the public health bureaucracy] to the more political and ideologically driven Administration for Children, Youth, and Families (ACF), which houses the administration's marriage promotion effort, among other things.

Since 1996, federal law has required abstinence-only education programs funded by the U.S. government to comply with an eight-point definition. As a result, programs must teach that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage may have harmful physical and psychological effects," and that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human behavior." The Clinton administration clarified that states receiving federal grants did not have to emphasize all eight points of this definition, but in fact could pick and choose among the eight, as long as they did not promote a message contrary to any of the remaining eight points. Nonetheless, programs are statutorily precluded from discussing contraceptives in any positive way due to the requirement that they exclusively teach the benefits of abstinence.

Objecting to this modicum of flexibility, the Bush administration in 2005 stipulated that states receiving funding from the $50 million grant program place "equal emphasis" on each of the eight elements. This changed prompted Maine to drop out of the program, joining California and Pennsylvania as the only states to reject the funding.

The administration's hard-line approach to abstinence education, however, did not become fully clear until it issued a notice of grant availability in early 2006 for the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program, which currently provides $113 million in competitive grants to community-based organizations, including crisis pregnancy centers and faith-based organizations. For the first time, the meaning of abstinence and sexual activity is defined as a matter of federal policy: "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 be designed to quell long-standing criticism that abstinence-only 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 preclude even kissing.

The announcement also elaborates on the administration's attitude toward contraception. A funded program "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' vs. trial or 'laboratory use,' human error, product defect, teen use and possible side effects of contraceptives";
  • "the limitations of contraception to consistently prevent [sexually transmitted diseases]."

Curiously, the announcement flatly prohibits programs from even referring to abstinence "as a form of contraception," presumably to shield it from the program requirement that failure rates be discussed for all contraceptive methods.

Finally, the announcement makes clear that an important goal of the CBAE program is to prepare young people for marriage.

Programs must emphasize "that the best life outcomes are more likely obtained if an individual abstains until marriage"; that "nonmarital 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."

In a Feb. 16 letter to HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform, called for the 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." This, he deemed, would be a "dangerous development."