Late last week, the Democratic controlled Labor HHS Appropriations Conference Committee endorsed a record $141 million dollar budget for community-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs which prohibit information about condoms and birth control.
The record-level increase, pushed by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI), flies in the face of a congressionally mandated evaluation showing that abstinence-only programs have "no impact on adolescent behavior." Astonishingly, the windfall was larger than what President Bush had been able to obtain from the prior conservative, Republican-controlled Congress!
In one outrageous move, the Democrats managed to put the health and safety of millions of young people at risk, promote programs that spread ignorance in the era of AIDS, and slap their party's brand on one of the biggest ideological boondoggles in recent congressional history. Over $1.5 billion dollars have been spent over the last decade on programs that simply do not work!
The architect of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, must be pinching himself to make sure he isn't dreaming. When these programs were created as a beneath-the-radar amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill in 1996, ultra-conservative opponents of sex education knew they had launched a major strategic initiative with the potential to achieve many of their goals relating to sexual health in America.
By censoring health-saving information about condoms and birth control and stressing only "failure rates," they seriously undercut the credibility of contraception with America's youth. By placing sexual health information in an ideological, rather than a public health frame, they were also able to promote their own narrow views on topics like abortion, sexual orientation, and gender roles.
Many of the abstinence-only curricula strayed far from the facts. This was documented by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) in a 2004 government oversight committee report showing that over 80% of programs contained "false or misleading information." The medical and ethical implications of this disinformation campaign were so significant that in 2006 the Society of Adolescent Medicine warned that abstinence-only programs "threaten fundamental human rights to health, information and life."
Once upon a time the Democrats were vocal in their opposition to abstinence-only programs. Citing the enormous volume of evidence against the programs and the fact that virtually all mainstream medical and public health organizations were in opposition, Democrats used abstinence-only policy as a case study to support their claim that the Bush administration promoted "ideology over science" in public health policy. When former Bush administration Surgeon General, Richard Carmona, was called to testify before Congress recently, he cited abstinence-only as one of the prime examples of the Administration's political interference during his tenure.
So why are the Democrats, now in power, embracing the same programs they denigrated in opposition?
Representative David Obey's barely concealed antipathy towards sex education and other reproductive health issues is well-known to those who lobby his committee on the Hill. But how has one recalcitrant committee chairman managed to hijack the Democratic policy on sex education?
Apparently, he had help. Sex education supporters recently learned that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) signed off on the funding increase. In addition, none of the erstwhile supporters of sex education on the House appropriations committee -- Nita Lowey (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jesse Jackson (D-IL), Betty McCollum (D-MN) -- offered a single amendment to slow Obey's effort to raise abstinence-only funding to record levels. Congressman Waxman, once a vocal opponent of these programs, has gone silent.
So, clearly, there is more to this abstinence-only funding debacle than the "Obey being Obey" excuse being offered up by many of the insiders.
Of course, other excuses have been put forth. The abstinence-only provisions were intended to obtain Republican votes sufficient to overturn a presidential veto. That excuse went up in smoke when Republicans made clear that while they praised the Chairman's efforts to increase funding for abstinence-only programs, they would not give him the votes to override a veto on legislation that included other programs they opposed.
Another popular excuse is that ending funding for failed abstinence-only programs would be too "controversial." This excuse also rings hollow in light of public opinion research, much of it conducted by pollsters who work with the Democrats, showing that the vast majority of Americans, parents included, support a comprehensive rather than an abstinence-only approach to sex education.
I fear that the real answer to the question "why did this happen?" is the obvious one. It happened because nobody stood up to stop it. We suffered a stunning failure of congressional leadership, pure and simple.
So, where do we go from here? The blame for this failure goes well beyond Chairman Obey. It is high time we stopped buying into the "dog ate my homework" excuses of Members who claim to be sex education advocates, but refuse to stand up for young people when it really counts We make a big mistake when we don't hold our allies and friends accountable when they desert core principles without a fight.
In addition to using our grassroots networks -- blogs, letters, phone calls, and contributions -- to hold members accountable, we have to focus their attention on the principles and the politics at play with this issue. It is immoral to fund programs that deprive young people of sexual health information in a country with 27 million sexually active young people under the age of 25.
It is smart politics to support comprehensive sex education, which includes information about abstinence and contraception, because that's what the research says works and that's what parents support.
Comprehensive sex education is included in the Democratic leadership bills in both the House and the Senate. The time has come to move these bills and to find leaders who will stand up to Mr. Obey during the next appropriations cycle. Only then will we be able to turn off the funding spigot for ideological programs that don't work and threaten the health and lives of young people.