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Abstinence Education DisObeyed

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By Lon Newman, President of the Wisconsin Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association and 2005 David R. Obey Person of Principle

In the politics of abstinence-only education, we have a lot to learn. With the full Senate poised to vote this month on the $163 billion Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (FY10 Labor-HHS) appropriations bill, advocates of evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education programs don't have very much time for study.

The Puzzle of David Obey and Abstinence Education from Stuart Productions on Vimeo.

The House appropriations bill and the Senate Appropriation Labor-HHS Subcommittee bill have replaced abstinence-only funding with evidence-based teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease prevention funding. It looks like the end of the line for Abstinence-only. Before we can write our RFPs, we will have to maintain our position through the full Senate vote and then through the conference committee. Who will be our strongest player in these political poker games? It will be my Wisconsin Congressman, David R. Obey, House Appropriations Committee Chair.

Here, then, are the lessons I think we need to learn:

I. Dave Obey may be ill-tempered, stubborn, outspoken and egocentric, but in a tough game, those aren't the only things to like about him. He is fiercely devoted to quality education and access to health care. He is even more intensely focused on getting the most progressive appropriations bill he can get through his committee and signed into law.

II. For the last ten years or so, opponents of comprehensive sex education have used abortion politics to make sex education and contraception bargaining chips in Washington. They often succeeded in the Appropriations Committee because they had the votes and they had the President. But that's no longer an excuse for us to be outmaneuvered or a reason to be defensive. Let the programs the religious zealots won under the last administration be the first-on-the-table bargaining chips for awhile. Instead of trying to block every negative effort by our opponents, now we can work with our majority congressional leadership to promote sound health policy and to fund effective sex education and prevention programs.

III. Over those same ten years, feminists, family planning advocates, sex education supporters and others (me, for example) whispered and shouted in frustration about Dave Obey's willingness to cut deals with our opponents. The reality has changed. The Appropriations Bill that passed the House is Dave Obey's Bill. If he wanted to restore abstinence-only funding, he would have done it. He didn't.

IV. Because the House appropriations bill has the language we want, Dave Obey will be playing our hand in the conference committee reconciliation process. We need to work as hard as we can to make sure he has the strongest cards possible because when it comes to bluffing, the proponents of abstinence-only education are world-class champions.

V. Over his 40 years in Congress, Dave Obey has offended Catholic Bishops, NARAL, SIECUS, pharmaceutical companies, Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Carter, and Bush. He's offended Rush Limbaugh, Speaker Pelosi and he's probably irritated President Obama. I know he's made me furious many times, but I like him anyway because he is a principled equal-opportunity offender. The lesson is that his talent is not being agreeable, but getting an agreement.

The summary of these lessons (this will be on the quiz) is that we must work hard right now to preserve President Obama's (and now Dave Obey's) evidence-based pregnancy prevention funding through the full Senate vote and continue the alliance with Congressman Obey to maintain the initiative through the conference committee reconciliation. We must work with Dave Obey now because when it comes to sex education, our opponents will stop at nothing.

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