Abstinence-only roots date back to 1996

Funding and programs on rise

Abstinence-only education was a by-product of the nation’s sweeping welfare reform law in the mid-1990s, but since its advent the movement has spread and become more controversial, public health advocates say.

The Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 included $50 million in federal funding for abstinence-only education that requires all programs using the funds to follow some specific teaching points, says Cynthia Dailard, JD, senior public policy associate with the Alan Guttmacher Institute in Washington, DC.

The program’s main points included the following:

  • Sex outside of marriage should be censored for people of all ages.
  • Sex outside of marriage has harmful psychological and physical effects.
  • Abstinence-only education must exclusively teach the benefits of abstinence and cannot talk about contraception except to discuss how it doesn’t work, Dailard states.

"In the late 1990s, some conservative members of Congress were dissatisfied with the existing abstinence programs and thought the purity of abstinence-only education effort had been diluted by more liberal governors, who accepted the federal funding and allocated it for less controversial projects," she explains.

For example, some governors were using the money to conduct media campaigns or to target younger children, Dailard says.

"So the conservative members said, We need to get back to the original intent of the program and create a third program that provides grants — not to states — but directly to community-based organizations, including faith-based organizations that target 12-to-18-year-olds,’" she says.

"The program is more restrictive than its predecessors in that programs that accept the federal grants can’t use their own money to talk about contraception," Dailard adds.

This third evolution of abstinence-only education, called the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance (SPRANS), was funded at $55 million initially and now President Bush wants to increase it to $135 million, she points out.

Despite the president’s interest in expanding these programs, there is no evidence that they work in preventing HIV or teen pregnancy, Dailard says.

There is a study under way that will look at abstinence-only education, says William Smith, director of public policy for Sexuality Info and Counseling in U.S. of Washington, DC. However the study has some limitations, Smith says. "First of all, the big picture is that the programs participating in this evaluation are doing so voluntarily," he explains. "The federal government says You can take money, but you don’t have to evaluate, and if you don’t want to tell us whether it works — that’s fine.’"

As a result of this approach, many of the programs have dropped out of the study, and so out of hundreds of programs nationwide, there are only five that will be assessed for impact, Smith says.

An interim report is expected to be released in June, but even if it finds no positive influence coming from the few programs being studied, it won’t make a dent in the current public policy that promotes abstinence-only education, he says.

"Abstinence-only supporters don’t want to evaluate these programs because it doesn’t matter if they work or don’t work because they think it’s the right thing," Smith adds.