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Which Democrat Restored Sexual-Abstinence Program?

You may have heard a little something this week about President Obama winning changes to the U.S. health-care system. What you might have missed amid the hoopla and the hollering is a couple of provisions tucked into the legislation to fund abstinence-only education and comprehensive sex education at a cost of more than $600 million over five years.

The health-care overhaul essentially gives a new lease on life to the Abstinence Education Grant Program, which has been around since the 1990s but recently was zeroed out with backing from President Obama. It provides grants to states for initiatives that teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the norm for all school-age children. It's now assured $50 million annually over the next five years.

Critics of the program are dismayed.

"Who decided it was a good idea to forgo saving a quarter-of-a-billion dollars over the next five years and continue funding for a failed program that leaves young people at risk?" Joseph DiNorcia Jr., the president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, said in a press release. "Why this program is being brought back from the dead is a mystery."

In an interview yesterday, James C. Wagoner, the president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on adolescent sexual health, had much the same reaction.

"Advocates for science-based, evidence-based sex education were stunned to learn that some Democrats had kept in the health-care reform measure a reauthorization of the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program," he told me. "Everybody assumed it would be removed."

Of course, surely not everyone is disappointed. Although I haven't come across any statements so far praising the inclusion of this measure in the health-care overhaul, my colleague Mary Ann Zehr quoted Valerie J. Huber from the National Abstinence Education Association as saying in December that the program needs to be continued so that educators can effectively teach a prevention message to youths.

"While contraceptives may reduce the risks for sexually transmitted diseases or getting pregnant, only abstinence prevents it," Huber said. (Incidentally, I did reach out to Huber and was expecting a call yesterday, but didn't hear from her.)

Wagoner points to a federally funded study from 2007 to make his case that the federal program isn't working. That report by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., a multiyear analysis of four programs that have received support from the federal initiative, found "few statistically significant differences in behavior between program and control-group youth."

At the same time, the health-care legislation also contains $75 million per year over five years for "personal responsibility education." An analysis by Advocates for Youth says activities supported by the program must educate young people on abstinence and contraception for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. They also must be "evidence-based, medically accurate and complete, age-appropriate, and culturally sensitive."

"The key here," Wagoner told me, "is that it has to be evidence-based and medically accurate."

As for the abstinence program, Wagoner says the mystery is which Democrat or Democrats pushed to keep it in the health package, given that it was a Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who had succeeded in getting it in the Senate bill. And as I'm sure you're aware, exactly zero Republicans supported the health-care overhaul.

"We're trying to figure out why it stayed in the bill," Wagoner said. "I used to work in the Senate, and I know a quarter of a billion dollars ... doesn't stay in a bill by accident."

"So far," he said, "this has been a virgin birth."

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