The Obama Watch

Abstinence Phobia

Prepare for the new administration's budget axe to bludgeon the Bush administration's cultural policies first.

By 12.8.08

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Count on President-elect Barack Obama's vow to trim unnecessary spending from the federal budget to include gutting abstinence-until-marriage programs in public schools. Yes, legislative pork abounds (the government's $4 billion foray into the house-flipping business, to name one), but abstinence funding will be deemed more worthy of the axe. That's because the programs invade the domain of abortion advocacy groups, one of Obama's core constituencies.

Abstinence education block grants are a microbe on the federal budget juggernaut -- just $50 million per year divided between participating states. School districts must use the funds to teach students that abstinence is the "expected standard for all school age children" and that a "mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity." Two generations ago, that would have been called common sense. Today, it's called a radical right-wing agenda.

That the funds are a pin drop compared with contraception-based sex education spending hasn't stopped liberal members of Congress from waging a holy war against it. Rep. Henry Waxman of California (soon to be chairman of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce) has led the charge. In 2004, Waxman directed his staff to write a report attempting to discredit the content of abstinence education programs. More recently, he conducted hearings in the House Oversight Committee that were stacked with supporters of a comprehensive sex-ed approach.

Congressional liberals have been unable to secure enough support to end funding outright. Since taking control of Congress in 2007, Democrats have failed to stop several reauthorizations of the block grants. To judge by their rhetoric, abstinence education opponents think teens are dying in the gutters as a result of the program. Yet they haven't mounted an effective effort to eliminate the funding.

Look for that to end next year. With hefty majorities in both chambers and a sympathetic president in the White House, federal dollars for abstinence could be a thing of the past by mid-2009, when the current authorization period ends. Bet on this: Obama will push for it.

The president-elect tended to put his foot in his mouth whenever cultural issues cropped up during the general election campaign, and sex education was no exception. But he didn't shy away from voicing his support, either. "I've got two daughters: nine years old and six years old," Obama said at a Pennsylvania rally in March. "I'm going to teach them first of all about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby, I don't want them punished with an STD at the age of 16."

At a Planned Parenthood fundraiser last year, Obama pledged to eliminate abstinence-until-marriage education programs. He said that sex education for kindergarteners "is the right thing to do," then qualified the statement with the terms "age-appropriate" and "science-based."

In the Senate, he co-sponsored the Prevention First Act, which would appropriate $700 million for contraception-based sex education programs each year. That pales in comparison to the abstinence block grants, but it would do much to feed abortion advocacy groups and their curricula in public schools. Since the election, Obama has taken official action to cement his commitment to this cause, too. He hired Ellen Moran, executive director of the pro-abortion Emily's List, as his White House communications director.

Opponents of abstinence-until-marriage will replace the block grants with more funding for so-called "abstinence-plus" programs that encourage students to abstain from sex while instructing them in contraception techniques, alternative sexual lifestyles, and the like. But let's be frank. Given a choice between unfettered sex (provided a condom is used) and abstinence, hormone-driven teens will almost always choose the latter. That's why a mixed approach to sex-ed doesn't work. Encouraging the kiddos to abstain from sex while providing them with every tool and reason to engage in sex does not a successful program make. Public schools don't encourage teens to shoot up heroin as long as they use clean needles (at least not officially). Neither should they encourage teens to be sexually promiscuous as long as protection is used.

Research also indicates that abstinence-plus programs focus far more on the plus than the abstinence. A study by the Heritage Foundation found that on average, abstinence-plus curricula devoted "only 4.7 percent of their page content to the topic of abstinence and zero percent to healthy relationships and marriage." In contrast, the primary focus was "on encouraging young people to use contraception."

Obama and his congressional allies might wait a few months before erasing the funding, but the move will come eventually. It will be part of a multi-pronged approach to roll back the Bush administration's cultural policies and will probably be done under the guise of cutting wasteful government spending. Ironic in an age of trillion dollar bailouts.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.