Is the White House pulling out on abstinence?

The Obama budget cuts two abstinence-only programs, but the administration's not completely ruling out funding for the idea.

By Vincent Rossmeier
Published May 12, 2009 7:30PM (EDT)

Last week, it seemed that the White House was ignoring the advice of Bristol Palin. While one of the country's most recognizable teenage mothers did her best to tout abstinence, the Obama administration released a budget proposal that cuts funding for two abstinence-only education programs. 

But now comes news that the proposed cuts don't necessarily mean that abstinence will have no place in the Obama team's plan to reduce teenage pregnancy in the U.S. After speaking with a White House official, Christian Broadcasting Network White House Correspondent David Brody points out that abstinence-only programs could still receive federal money through the Obama budget. The official told Brody the budget "increases overall funding for teenage pregnancy prevention, which may include education on abstinence, and supports programs based on research."

The official added that 75 percent of the funding would go to "programs that have [been] demonstrated by rigorous research to prevent teen pregnancy." It's doubtful that abstinence-only programs, which received over $1 billion in government funding during the Bush administration, will qualify to receive federal assistance based on this criterion. A 2007 Congressional study found that the programs did not stop teenagers from having sex.

However, the official told Brody that the other 25 percent of the federal funds could go towards "promising, but not yet proven, programs for which we have some indication that they achieve the goal of teen pregnancy prevention." The official added that abstinence-only education could qualify for that money, but any programs -- abstinence-based or not -- receiving that funding would "have to agree to participate in a rigorous evaluation.".

The White House seems to be trying to eat its proverbial cake on this issue. Obama is leaving the door open to abstinence-only education in principle, but putting the pressure on program advocates to prove that it works -- something that the White House has already acknowledged isn't the case at present.

Last week, the administration said it had proposed cutting the abstinence-only programs because there was no evidence that they were effective. Melody Barnes, the President’s Domestic Policy Adviser and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, said, "In any area where Americans want to confront a problem, they want solutions they know will work, as opposed to programming they know hasn't proven to be successful. Given where we've been in recent years, I think this is a very important moment."

In January, the National Center for Health Statistics released a study showing teen birth rates were up significantly in 26 states during 2006 - the most recent year for which reliable data was available.

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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