Forget healthcare, let's worry about teen sex!

Senate Finance Committee votes to fund abstinence-only sex ed, the same day it kills the public option

Published September 30, 2009 9:31PM (EDT)

We've all heard about the major disappointment of yesterday's Senate Finance Committee meeting. But the defeat of the public option wasn't the senators' only poor decision of the day. As the Associated Press reports, the committee spent the evening approving a measure to restore $50 million of federal funding to abstinence-only sex education. That's right, folks: These 23 senators think it's more important to devote several million dollars to teaching your children lies than to provide a realistic public alternative to a healthcare hell created by private insurance companies. Are you pissed off yet?

The committee voted 12-11 to support the measure by (who else?) Sen. Orrin Hatch. And guess what? As with the public option, it was Democratic disunity that pushed Hatch's plan through. Two Democrats, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, voted with all 10 Republicans in favor of the measure. (At least Baucus was on the right side of this one. According to the AP, "Hatch said abstinence education had been shown to work, though Baucus disagreed." Of course, unless by "work" Hatch means "increase the teen birth rate," we know who's got the facts on his side.) 

Luckily, the Senate Finance Committee vote doesn't automatically free up the funds. But it does allow the full Senate, as well as the House, to vote on the measure. And there's a bit of good news here, too: Baucus also introduced an alternate measure that "would make money available for education on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, among other things, in addition to abstinence," which was approved 14-9. That means the two measures will need to be "reconciled" (although considering that the latter also includes abstinence, it might be difficult for the comprehensive sex ed crowd to compromise further without abandoning their entire agenda) before moving ahead.

What makes Hatch's measure even more ridiculous and dismaying than usual is the news out of Texas this week. According to the Austin American-Statesman, some districts in the conservative state (a longtime leader in the abstinence-only disinformation movement) "are moving from so-called abstinence-only instruction to a more comprehensive sex education curriculum, also called 'abstinence-plus.'" And guess why? Once federal funding for abstinence-only disappeared, districts took a look at teen pregnancy statistics and decided they didn't like what they saw. The American-Statesman includes a particularly shocking figure: "The rate of student pregnancies in Austin high schools has increased 57 percent since the 2005-06 school year." Instances of STDs are on the rise, too. 

So what does Texas teach us? Federal funding -- and the lack thereof -- for abstinence-only sex ed programs really can change states' agendas. While half of states were already refusing Title V abstinence-only funds by the end of the '08-'09 school year, when the program ended, it may take a blow to the pocketbook for others to re-evaluate their curricula. If Hatch's measure does pass, then some states may never get that opportunity.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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