No More Virginal
Spend $1 billion on abstinence education. Get nothing.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland announced recently that his state would withdraw from Title V for the coming year, rejecting more than $1 million in federal funds and also freeing about $500,000 in the state budget. (As a spokesman explained, "[I]f the state is going to spend money on teaching and protecting kids, the governor believes it is better to spend it in a smarter, more comprehensive approach.") New Jersey, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Montana, and Maine have also pulled out or plan to do so by the end of the year. (And California never participated to begin with.) The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a policy and advocacy group, estimates that together, these eight states are turning down about $11 million of the total $50 million allocated to the Title V program.
But the rest of that $50 million is only part of the problem. In 2000, another federal cookie jar opened. Community-Based Abstinence Education, as the initiative is now called, channels money directly to community groups rather then through state governments. And starting last year, the grant processes and rules were changed. Now participants have to focus less on measurable public health goals and more on chastity as a form of moral virtue. Programs "must not … refer to abstinence as a form of contraception," but should teach that "abstinence reflects qualities of personal integrity and is honorable," according to the new guidelines. (Programs should also teach students to watch out for corrupt classmates, avoiding "parties where sexually active peers are likely to attend.") The length of grants was increased to five years, which means fewer opportunities for oversight. And so far, Congress hasn't helped either. Congressional earmarks to abstinence-only groups, like the Abstinence Clearinghouse and the Medical Institute, continue apace.
Now that the Democrats are in control, they need to crack down. The current funding for Title V expires in June and, given this latest study, should expire for good. As for money that flows directly to community groups, Congress could cut this, too, despite the five-year grants, to decrease the number of new grants offered or possibly reduce payments to existing grantees. Now that the government has collected its own evidence that teaching about abstinence doesn't make kids less sexually active, it's time to redirect money to comprehensive sex ed. The kind that teaches kids to protect themselves with condoms and is much more likely to do some good.
Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.
Photograph of condoms on the Slate home page courtesy Digital Vision.