The tug-of-war over sex education is back, thanks to a House bill that would fund the Department of Health and Human Services for fiscal 2012 but also would slash an Obama administration-inspired program and divert half the money to abstinence education.
Advocates wonder whether the House approach will prevail over the Senate bill, which maintains money for the administration’s new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPP) program
“Well, I think that’s the million-dollar question in Congress,” said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA).
The deadline for a decision is Nov. 18, when Congress’ temporary spending law expires.
The heart of the battle is the TPP program, which was created by the Obama administration and a Democrat-led Congress to replace Bush-era abstinence-education grant programs.
TPP, now funded at $105 million, gives grants to organizations to replicate certain “comprehensive” sex-education programs that have been proven to impact teen pregnancy. TPP grantees must also conduct research on their programs.
The Senate-passed appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) keeps TPP intact, with $113 million. But in its draft funding bill for HHS, the House Appropriations Committee slashes TPP funding to $40 million — and then requires half of the money to go to community based abstinence-education programs.
Supporters of the TPP program are outraged.
“The whole idea behind the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative was to both fund programs that work and build the evidence base” so that “we will have some new data about what works,” said Monica Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).
The House bill is “problematic and hypocritical,” Ms. Rodriguez added. Everyone in Congress is talking about deficit reduction and cost-saving measures, but then they “decimate” the TPP program, which supports programs that work, she said, and divert money to “failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.”
Abstinence programs are effective, said Ms. Huber, citing a NAEA report published this year that lists 22 studies — half published since 2008 — that show that abstinence programs can reduce teen sex or affect teen behaviors.
Also, federal data show “a dramatic drop” in teen sexual-activity rates since 1996 — the year abstinence-education funding was first expanded, she said. It’s not possible to attribute this turnaround to a single event, but “we can say with certainty … that abstinence education is an approach that teens are grasping and applying to their lives.”
The TPP funding issue is still in play: The House Appropriations Committee hasn’t marked up its HHS funding bill, so changes to the TPP program are not locked in — unless the committee decides to send its draft straight to the Senate. It is also unknown what will happen to the TPP program when the House and Senate bills are merged.
“We would be happy if the Senate version passed,” said Ms. Rodriguez, of SIECUS, adding that the Senate bill — unlike the House draft — also maintains funding for family planning and other public health programs.
Ms. Huber prefers the House approach of splitting TPP funds between “risk-avoidance” abstinence programs, and “risk-reduction” contraceptive programs. That’s “much more equitable,” especially since the Senate bill “has not a penny” for abstinence education, she said.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.
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