Making Progress: The Decline of Federal Funding for Abstinence-Only Education

Kids, despite their inexperience, are not dumb. In fact, their ability to comprehend vast quantities of new information continually astounds their parents and teachers. This capacity to learn rapidly is a crucial part of human development, and therefore what kids are learning is of vital importance to all Americans.

Sexual education in America has always been a bit backwards, mainly due to the sexually repressive culture that is reinforced in our society by religious groups. Teachers often have a hard time discussing the intimate details of human anatomy and reproduction with their students, in part due to a lack of specific sex education training and guidance by the education agencies of the individual states and the federal government. Having been taught for so long that abstinence is the only solution to prevent STDs and teen pregnancies, it’s no surprise that teachers are woefully unprepared to inform their students about more comprehensive and modern approaches to sexual health.

Beginning in 1981 under the Reagan Administration, the federal government consistently funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs despite an overwhelming body of research proving they are ineffective and that this federal expenditure has failed to achieve its stated goals. Funding for these programs grew exponentially from 1996 until 2006, particularly during the years of the Bush Administration. In fact, between 2001 and 2009 Congress funneled a total of over $1.3 billion taxpayer dollars into abstinence only programs.

Thankfully, this ineffective approach to sexual health has changed significantly. After nearly thirty years of strong support for such programs, the Obama Administration and Congress recently eliminated the majority of funding for the two main federally abstinence only programs- the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the abstinence-only-until-marriage portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act. These programs prevented America’s youth from gaining the sexual education they needed if they were to participate in normal sexual behavior and relegated them to a life of misinformation and ignorance.

In addition to removing the ineffective and unrealistic sex education programs, the Obama Administration and Congress recently provided funding for initiatives that support evidence based teen pregnancy prevention and more comprehensive approaches to sex education totaling nearly $190 million.

The two main beneficiaries of this new boost to comprehensive sex education are the President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI) and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). Both of these programs focus on disease and pregnancy prevention as well as contraception, topics that have been long ignored by our outdated sex education program.  TPPI received $115 million in 2010, $75 million of which was available for replicating programs that have been proven effective through rigorous evaluation to reduce teenage pregnancy, behavioral risk factors underlying teenage pregnancy, or other associated risk factors. In addition, at least $25 million was required to be available for research and demonstration grants to develop, replicate, refine, and test additional models and innovative strategies for preventing teenage pregnancy.  PREP received $75 million in 2010, all of which is to be spent on providing young people with medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education in order to help them reduce their risk of unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and other STDs. Under PREP, states are required to fund programs that include a core sex education component that teaches youth about both abstinence and contraception for the prevention of pregnancy and STDs.

These programs do much to counter the years of antiquated sexual education instruction that occurred in our schools during the latter half of the 20th century. More importantly, these programs  have the potential to significantly reduce teen pregnancy, which often destroys the life of the mother and her new child by forcing them into a life of economic hardships and lower academic achievement. America’s government should mainly focus on improving the quality of life for its citizens, even if that means we must talk about potentially uncomfortable things with our kids during the school day. To not do so would be a great disservice to our children and would relegate them to a life of misinformation and religious sexual oppression.

The American Humanist Association will continue to work in coalition with other reproductive rights organizations in Washington DC to support continued funding for responsible comprehensive sexual education programs that rely upon evidence and scientific understanding of the human body.  We humanists must ensure that our youth get all the help and knowledge they deserve.