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Abstinence-Only Education Debate Resurfaces

The new federal budget bill includes $5 million for abstinence-only education programs.

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A longtime controversial topic on Capitol Hill, the debate over the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, has resurfaced. In the 2012 budget, signed by President Obama last week, the House Appropriations Committee set aside $5 million for abstinence education programs, which don't teach students about birth control methods and instead encourage teens to wait until marriage before they have sex.

Two of the largest federal programs funding abstinence education, the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the Adolescent Family Life Act, were abolished in 2010 under President Obama. Between 1996 and 2009, more than $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars were spent funding abstinence education.

The changes were short lived, as House Republicans put abstinence education legislation into Obama's healthcare reform law, the Affordable Care Act, which will grant up to $50 million per year to abstinence-only education programs. The $5 million in the appropriations bill is in addition to the Affordable Care Act funds.

Many reports have found that abstinence education programs don't measurably impact teens. A 2007 Congressionally-mandated report found that, on average, students who participated in abstinence-only education had sex at the same age as students who had comprehensive sex education. They also had similar rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and used birth control at similar rates as students who had comprehensive sex education.

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Last year, evidence that abstinence-only programs might impact teens—especially young teens—came to light in a University of Pennsylvania study. About a third of sixth and seventh graders who enrolled in abstinence-only programs became sexually active within two years of taking the class; meanwhile, about half of their peers who took comprehensive sex education classes became sexually active within two years. At the time, lead researcher John Jemmott told the Washington Post that abstinence-only education has been "written off," but that it "could be one approach that could be used" to prevent unplanned pregnancies.

Abstinence associations nationwide applauded Congress for putting abstinence funding into the appropriations bill. Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, in response to a September draft of the bill, said that "it is clear that parents across the country support such programming and will be gratified to see their tax dollars supporting the healthy message of abstinence."

Meanwhile, Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that promotes comprehensive sex education, blasted Congress's move.

"Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs promote ignorance in the era of HIV and AIDS," Debra Hauser, executive vice president of the organization, said in a statement. "I am shocked that Congress would fund programs that ignore science and teach young people fear, shame, and denial. Parents, medical experts, and young people agree that schools have a responsibility to provide sex education that includes information about both abstinence and contraception."

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