Crossposted at Choice Words.
President Obama’s 2010 budget, which was released today, May 7, 2009, eliminates funding for abstinence only programs and redirects funds to a new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative. The relevant portions of the budget can be read here (pdf).
The elimination of funding for abstinence only programs is a huge victory. Abstinence only programs have no perceivable impact on teen sexual activity – young people who go through these programs are just as sexually active as their peers. Instead, the programs teach inaccurate information about contraception and decrease condom use and other safe sex practices . Further, they often teach a fundamentalist Christian worldview, encourage young people to fit into essentialist and offensive gender roles, and ignore or actively oppose homosexuality . Abstinence only programs waste government funds teaching a belief system rather than scientifically accurate information.
Federal funds for abstinence only programs are not necessarily gone; according to a Wall Street Journal article 25% of the $164 million in funds for teen pregnancy prevention could potentially go to these programs if they pass the evaluation process.
Funds will be directed to “teenage pregnancy prevention programs that have been proven through rigorous evaluation to delay sexual activity, increase contraceptive use (without increasing sexual activity), or reduce teenage pregnancy.” The administration recognizes that no abstinence only programs will qualify, as they have been shown to fail on all three counts. They could apply for funds to develop “innovative strategies” to prevent teen pregnancy, though these programs have had zero success showing results so far.
This is a qualified victory; the focus on pregnancy prevention reveals some major flaws. As SIECUS points out, these funds will not be able to go to programs focused on reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. This is arguably one of the most important aspects of comprehensive sexuality education and its conspicuous absence from government funded programs could be incredibly detrimental; I can imagine a scenario where young people are only being taught how to prevent pregnancies, so using birth control without condoms ends up seeming like not that bad an idea.
The current intense focus on teen pregnancy is increasing the vilification of teen parents, who are often viewed as foolish, irresponsible and a drain on society. These stereotypes often become racialized, as the pop culture image of teen parents is almost exclusively people of color; Bristol Palin is seen as an anomaly. Decreasing unwanted pregnancies is a good thing. Giving young people information about the responsibilities of raising a child is a good thing. But the mounting prejudice against teens who do parent needs to be countered.
Finally, safe consensual sex can be a great thing. We need to stop assuming that young people can’t have a healthy positive sexuality. Teens are not being trusted with information on how to have good sex and as a result are turning to whatever sources they can find such as porn, the vast majority of which presents a sexist and unrealistic view of sexuality. A cultural fear of and discomfort with real teen sexuality is clearly harming young people by refusing them important information.
Eliminating abstinence only funding is an important first step. Now we need to fund comprehensive sexuality education. And we need to re-frame the conversation around teen sexuality and pregnancy in a way that is respectful of young people’s intelligence, decisions, and humanity.