WASHINGTON – President Bush 's re-election insures that more federal money will flow to abstinence education that precludes discussion of birth control, even as the administration awaits evidence that the approach gets kids to refrain from sex.
Congress last weekend included more than $131 million for abstinence programs in a $388 billion spending bill, an increase of $30 million but about $100 million less than Bush requested. Meanwhile, a national evaluation of abstinence programs has been delayed, with a final report not expected until 2006.
Ten state evaluations, compiled by a group that opposes abstinence-only education, showed little change in teens' behavior since the start of abstinence programs in 1997.
The president has been a strong proponent of school-based sexual education that focuses on abstinence, but does not include instruction on safe sex.
"We don't need a study, if I remember my biology correctly, to show us that those people who are sexually abstinent have a zero chance of becoming pregnant or getting someone pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted disease," said Wade Horn, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of federal abstinence funding.
Those who say schools also should be teaching youths how to use contraceptives say Horn's argument ignores reality. Surveys indicate that roughly 50 percent of teens say they have sex before they leave high school. While the nation's teenage pregnancy rate is declining, young people 15 to 24 account for about half the new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States each year.
Teaching only about abstinence means students will be less able to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, say supporters of comprehensive sexual education.
"The only 100 percent way to avoid a car collision is not to drive, but the federal government sure does a lot of advocacy for safety belts," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a group that promotes education about birth control and condom use.
The push for abstinence is one of several Bush policies popular with religious conservatives. Also topping the agenda: the faith-based initiative, which aims to open more government programs to religious groups. That push will continue into a second term, said Jim Towey, who directs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
"This is a culture change in the way the government provides social services," he said in an interview. "It's a change to recognize if we really want to help our poor, we want to give them some choice of programs and providers."
The argument about sexual education has raged for years, between those who say teaching about sex promotes promiscuity and those who say teens will make better choices if they are fully informed.
The "abstinence-only" initiative was part of the 1996 welfare law. Because programs are so young, there has been little conclusive research about their effectiveness. Independent researchers said in 2002 there is no reliable evidence whether these programs are effective in reducing teen sex, pregnancy or the transmission of disease.
The same team has been updating its findings for the Department of Health and Humans Services. A second report was supposed to be released earlier this year, but has been pushed back, said HHS spokesman Bill Pierce. The final installation is expected in 2006.
Advocates for Youth recently compiled state evaluations that found little change in teens' behavior since the start of the abstinence programs. The states evaluated are: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington.
Leslee Unruh, president of National Abstinence Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls, S.D., said those state programs are not true abstinence programs because they talk about delaying sexual activity, but not specifically waiting until marriage.
Wagoner said backers of abstinence-only education are now distancing themselves from programs that don't work. He noted that the state programs all qualified for and received money from the federal pot of abstinence education money.
Horn and Unruh acknowledged a paucity of data. "So many of our programs are in their infancy. The jury is still out," Unruh said.
Horn said, "The research is not as adequate as it needs to be."
Still, he is not willing to wait for more evaluations, calling abstinence education "something that parents and children want."