Abstaining from making sense

ABSTAINING FROM MAKING SENSE…. If there’s one thing conservatives claim to hate, it’s wasteful federal spending on programs that have been proven not to work.

Unless we’re talking about funding for abstinence programs, in which case conservatives love wasteful federal spending on programs that have been proven not to work.

Proponents of sex education classes that focus on encouraging teenagers to remain virgins until marriage are hoping that the rescue plan for the nation’s health-care system will also save their programs, which are facing extinction because of a cutoff of federal funding.

The health-care reform legislation pending in the Senate includes $50 million for programs that states could use to try to reduce pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease among adolescents by teaching to them to delay when they start having sex.

Under the federal budget signed by President Obama, such programs would no longer have funds targeted for them.

“We’re optimistic,” said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association, which is lobbying to maintain funding for the programs. “Nothing is certain, but we’re hopeful.”

Bush/Cheney spent about $150 million a year on abstinence programs that failed miserably. Obama’s budget directs funds to “teenage pregnancy prevention” for programs that have been “proven effective through rigorous evaluation.” The right objected, arguing that limiting funding to effective programs would exclude their preferred initiatives. Obama didn’t budge.

But abstinence proponents believe health care reform might offer new opportunities, in large part because Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) pushed a measure to provide $50 million to states to use for abstinence programs. It was approved in committee thanks to the support of a couple of conservative Democrats, and for some reason, the provision ended up as part of the legislation passed by the Senate. (Hatch described himself as being “as surprised as anyone” to see the provision remain in the bill.)

Reality has been stubborn on the question of abstinence effectiveness, and policymakers shaping the final health care bill would be wise to acknowledge it. The nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that abstinence programs do not affect teenager sexual behavior. A congressionally-mandated study, which was not only comprehensive but also included long-term follow-up, found the exact same thing. Researchers keep conducting studies, and the results are always the same.

This isn’t complicated. Simply telling teenagers not to have sex doesn’t affect behavior, doesn’t prevent unwanted pregnancies, and doesn’t stop the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Teens who receive comprehensive lessons of sexual health, with reliable, accurate information, are more likely to engage in safer, more responsible behavior.

That this is still even an argument reflects poorly on the seriousness with which lawmakers consider reason and evidence in shaping public policy.