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Abstinence-Only Programs: What Part of 'They Don't Work' Is Hard to Understand?

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By Julia Kaye, National Women's Law Center

Tuesday night, in a "hat-tip" to common-sense and efficacy, the Senate Finance Committee approved an amendment introduced by Chairman Baucus to provide funding for evidence-based comprehensive sex education. The Chairman introduced his amendment as an alternative to an amendment introduced by Senator Hatch, which would restore $50 million in annual funding for abstinence-only programs through 2014. The Chairman and his staff explained that abstinence-only programs would still be eligible for the new pot of teen pregnancy prevention money -- they simply had to prove, like any other pregnancy prevention program, that the program is effective and that the information it provides is medically-accurate and complete. Fair, no?

The Committee didn't think so. Fearing, I suppose, that abstinence-only programs would not meet the standards for the new pregnancy prevention funding and loathe, it seems, to end the dedicated funding stream to ab-only programs (which have been demonstrated ineffective by study after study after studies), the Committee also approved Senator Hatch's amendment (in a 12-11 vote).

As we've previously discussed, over 80 percent of abstinence-only curricula provide information about contraception and other reproductive health services that is medically inaccurate, exaggerated, and misleading, such as grossly exaggerated failure rates for condoms, false information about the risks of abortion, and subjective, moral judgments treated as scientific fact. The abstinence-only curriculum, Me, My World, My Future (1998), used by eight federal grantees, refers to a 43 day-old fetus as a "thinking person." Why kNOw (2002), a curriculum used by seven grantees, asks rhetorically "could condoms be just another stupid idea?"

Some federally funded abstinence-only programs also promote stereotypes about gender and relationships. WAIT Training, a curriculum used by nine former federal grantees, lists "Financial Support" as one of the "5 Major Needs of Women," and "Domestic Support" as one of the "5 Major Needs of Men." Moreover, all abstinence-only programs discriminate against GLBTQ teens, and all programs stigmatize adolescents without two, heterosexual, married parents, and youths who do not foresee themselves one day living in a traditional family structure.

Baucus' common-sense amendment is in line with President Obama's 2010 budget proposal, which would phase out abstinence-only funding in favor of comprehensive sex education programs. The amendment would provide $50 million annually to states for evidence-based, medically accurate and age-appropriate programs to educate adolescents on both abstinence and contraception, as well as at least three "adulthood preparation subjects," such as healthy relationships and financial literacy. The amendment also provides an additional $25 million for innovative teen pregnancy prevention strategies, allotments to tribes, and research, evaluation and technical assistance.

This article originally appeared on the website of the National Women's Law Center.