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Federal Support of Abstinence-Only Program Draws Scrutiny

Federal Support of Abstinence-Only Program Draws Scrutiny

May 9, 2012 — HHS' Office of Adolescent Health last month added an abstinence-only education curriculum to its list of 31 evidence-based pregnancy prevention programs that are eligible for federal funding, the Washington Post's "Wonkblog" reports. The curriculum, called Heritage Keepers, is the first abstinence-only program to become eligible for the Obama administration's $75 million Teen Pregnancy Prevention Fund, which supports programs that HHS deems to be "evidence-based" (Kliff, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 5/8).

Heritage Keepers does not include instruction on contraception, condoms, sexually transmitted infections or safe sexual behavior, according to Salon, which notes that the program's student manual states that "girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn't invite lustful thoughts" (Carmon, Salon, 5/8).

The inclusion of an abstinence-only program contrasts with President Obama's statement on the campaign trail in 2008 that contraception should be "part of [the] education process." After taking office, Obama supported the elimination of federal funds for the programs, which federal reviews have found to be ineffective and to include inaccurate information. However, $55 million in federal funding was budgeted for the program in 2012 -- about one-third of the $176 million that was provided under the George W. Bush administration, according to "Wonkblog" (Wonkblog," Washington Post, 5/8).

HHS Response

HHS spokesperson Mark Weber said Heritage Keeper has fulfilled the evidence-based criteria, "gone through a transparent, rigorous review process," and shown "demonstrated outcomes" of delaying sexual activity (Salon, 5/8). In justifying its inclusion of the program, HHS cited a study of 2,215 adolescents that found that among students who were not enrolled in the program, the proportion who were considered "sexually experienced" increased from 29.2% to 43.2% after one year, compared with an increase of 29.1% to 33.7% among teens who participated.

"What we're committed to is impartial research, and then sharing the information so that communities can make the choices that are appropriate for them," Weber said ("Wonkblog," Washington Post, 5/8).

Groups Seek Explanation

In a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on April 30, more than a dozen major groups -- including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign -- asked the department to explain the decision. The program "ostracizes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth; promotes heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable family structure; withholds life-saving information from sexually active youth; and uses fear-based messages to shame youth who have been sexually active and youth living in 'nontraditional' households," the letter said.

Elizabeth Schroeder -- executive director of Answer, a national sexuality education organization based at Rutgers University -- said HHS is being "frighteningly shortsighted," adding, "Heritage Keepers relies on fear, shame, distorted information and biases" (Salon, 5/8).