Abstinence Education: A Controversial Piece of Health Reform

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media , January 20, 2010

One of the more controversial aspects of health reform has more to do with teenagers than health leaders—a proposal in the Senate bill that would allot $50 million for states to continue abstinence education programs.

The abstinence programs focus on encouraging teenagers to delay having sex until marriage to reduce pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Opponents say they are misguided and have no place in a health reform bill.

Valerie Huber, president of the National Abstinence Education Association, which is lobbying to maintain the abstinence funding, says the health reform bill is now the only hope for continued funding, which expires on June 30.

"We are hopeful the Senate language will prevail," Huber says, referring to House and Senate conference on the health reform bill. The House did not include the abstinence program in its version of the health reform legislation.

"I think it's up in the air," Huber says of the final Congressional decision. "This is a grassroots issue and we're relying on our members to communicate to members of Congress."

The fallout of Scott Brown's election victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, which gives the GOP enough votes to filibuster health reform, or at least possibly force a compromise, is among the "elements in play" that could determine the fate of the abstinence program, Huber says.

Huber's organization says the abstinence programs serve teens by giving them the skills necessary to avoid sexual activity.

Under former President George Bush, abstinence programs received $150 million per year. President Obama declined to place funding in this year's budget for an abstinence only education program. Abstinence education funding was restored in the Senate healthcare bill as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, reconciled versions of bills offered by the Senate Finance Committee.

But James Wagoner, president of the Advocates for Youth, a Washington-D.C. advocacy program, says there is no scientific evidence that abstinence only programs work. The funding shouldn't even be in the health bill, he says, adding, "It has nothing to do with people who don't have health insurance . . . But that's how Congress operates."

Wagoner supports comprehensive education programs, which includes abstinence and contraception instruction. Both houses of Congress and the federal budget have funds slated for the comprehensive education programs.

Abstinence programs have been wasteful, he says. "More than $1.5 billion has been spent over the past decade for a program that in reality has been a complete failure," Waggoner says.

What happens to the abstinence program in a House and Senate conference remains to be seen, especially with the Massachusetts vote Tuesday. "The political dynamic is in abeyance," Wagoner says.

Joe Cantlupe is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media Online.

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