Obama administration ends Bush abstinence-only sex education policy

In a big change from the Bush administration’s abstinence-only sex education policy, the Obama administration has announced funding for comprehensive teen pregnancy prevention programs that focus on boosting academic achievement, extracurricular activities and smarter life decisions.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that $155 million in teen pregnancy prevention grants are being awarded to states, non-profit organizations, school districts, universities and others. These grants support programs that have been shown to be effective through rigorous research and also include testing of new, innovative approaches to combating teen pregnancy. To qualify, programs had to be supported by at least one study showing a positive, statistically significant effect on at least one of the following: sexual activity, contraceptive use, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy or births.

Beginning this school year, a five-year, $375 million grant is also being divided among 28 programs that have been proven to lower the pregnancy rate among participants, no matter their focus.

Supporters say the approach gives youth the tools to help them succeed in school and make better decisions in life, especially about sex. The widely supported concept has been an uphill battle for sex education groups in previous years. It will replace the abstinence-centered policies funded by the Republican-controlled Congress in the late 1990s and later under President George W. Bush, costing $1.5 billion.

Evidence has shown that abstinence-only programs have not helped lower the teen pregnancy rate or the likelihood of teens having sex, experts say. One 2007 study by the Mathematica Policy Research, an independent government contractor, showed students in abstinence-only programs are not more likely to abstain from sex, delay having sex or have fewer partners than students who received no sex education at all.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the teen birth rate rose from 2005 to 2007 after years of steady decline, then dipped again in 2008. More recently the CDC released a report showing almost all U.S. teens have had formal sex education, but only about two-thirds have been taught birth control methods.

In Michigan 44 percent of teen girls and 47 percent of teen boys admit to having sex before leaving high school. Three percent and seven percent say they’ve had sex before age 13.

“Our kids are at risk and we have to deal with their real lives,” Jan Lunquist, vice president of education and community services for Planned Parenthood of West and Northern Michigan told Wzzm13.com. “All of us would like to pretend that ‘just say no’ will be acted upon, so we turned it around and said just say know. K-N-O-W because education, medically accurate information, the chance to practice some decision making and communication skills and support for what is happening in their lives is critical for kids.”

One approach getting federal funding is the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, which helps 2,500 children in blighted neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.; New York; Flint, Mich; and Toledo, Ohio. Students get art and music classes, science field trips, homework tutoring, mental health counseling and free medical and dental care. They’re also required to get summer jobs, open a bank account, save 10 percent of their wages and learn how to balance a checkbook. Parents, many of whom are teen mothers, also receive high school equivalency classes, resume writing tips and mortgage advice. Thirty-five organizations nationwide applied for the HHS grant to replicate the Carrera model, which could reach an additional 3,500 teens if the applicants are approved.

Meanwhile Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., recently introduced the “Repealing Ineffective and Incomplete Abstinence-Only Program Funding Act.” The bill aims to strike Title V, Section 510 from the Social Security Act and end federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which are said to be ineffectively teaching teens how to prevent unintended pregnancy or stop sexually transmitted diseases. The measure would shift the funding to comprehensive sex education.

“Our legislation would eliminate wasteful spending and focus federal resources on comprehensive sex-ed programs that are proven to work,” stated Lautenberg. “Young adults need access to all the information available to make smart decisions about their health. Our nation’s young people should be able to get the education they need to take on the real life situations facing them everyday.”

The bill, co-sponsored by several Democratic senators, is endorsed by dozens of groups including the Sexuality Information and Educational Council of the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and Choice USA.

Photo: Sex education teacher Shayna Knowles talks to class at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Lake Worth, Fla, Sept. 10. For the first time in more than a decade, the federal government is funding sex education programs that aren’t based solely on abstinence. (Alan Diaz/AP)



Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.