Senate Bill Restores Abstinence-Only Funding

While the Senate toned down the House's language on abortion restrictions, it may have ratcheted things up with another controversial reproductive-health issue: abstinence-only education. Sec. 2954 of the Senate health-reform bill, released Wednesday evening, restores funding for abstinence education.

As of this summer, abstinence-only education seemed en route to becoming a thing of the past. As I wrote for Newsweek this past month:

Buoyed by $1.9 billion in government funding since 1997 ($1.5 billion of that federal money), abstinence-only education grew from a niche market to a booming industry, with hundreds of curriculums for teachers to choose from. But if the 2000s were abstinence's boom years, the next decade may well be its bust. With Obama's budget for 2010 dropping all abstinence-until-marriage funds from the federal budget, past grantees are left uncertain.

Leave it to the United States Senate to prove my prediction slightly off. Their provision would restore a program called Title V, which, since the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, has allocated a yearly $50 million in grants to abstinence-only education programs. Obama let the program lapse in June, leaving some abstinence-only groups in dire straits. So in September, Sen. Orrin Hatch offered an amendment to restore Title V via heath-care reform, which (much to the outrage of liberal groups) just squeaked through the Senate Finance Committee with a 12–11 vote. A similar amendment, offered in the House by Rep. Terry Lee from Nebraska, died in committee.

If the Senate language survives reconciliation, the Title V program will be extended through 2014. This will not, however, bring abstinence funding back to the levels of the past decade. In 2008, Title V grants accounted for just under 25 percent of the federal abstinence budget (the rest of the budget came from other abstinence-only funding sources not restored in the Senate bill, including Community Based Abstinence Education Grants and the Adolescent Family Life Act).

Nevertheless, abstinence-only groups have declared victory. "We are pleased that Senator Reid inserted this provision within his health-care bill because the sexual health of America's teens depends upon the kinds of skills that are a part of a typical abstinence-education program," Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, noted in a late-Wednesday-night press release.

What to make of abstinence-only's restoration? I don't think it's off base to read this as a slight concession to the Senate's social conservatives: backing off the strong abortion language but offering up a significant pool of money for abstinence-only programs. Orrin Hatch, after all, was the man behind both the abstinence-only funding and the push for the Stupak provision—and he won at least one of those battles. Admittedly, a $50 million grant is unlikely to make Hatch an ardent supporter of Reid's bill. But it might do something for an on-the-fence Democrat like Blanche Lincoln (who, by the way, voted yes on abstinence-only funds in that previous Senate Finance Committee vote).

One last thought: while it remains to be seen whether the Stupak language survives in the final version of the health-care bill, I would place my bet on these abstinence-only funds, while controversial, making it through. Abortion-rights supporters are already questioning whether they ought to put up such a fight on the abortion issue if it could derail health-care reform. If they're not willing to risk health care for abortion, chances are they're not coming out swinging against abstinence-only. Meanwhile, pro-abortion rights reproductive-health groups—generally the opponents of abstinence-only education—are hyperfocused on defeating an "abortion ban" and likely do not have the resources for a serious two-front battle. Abortion can incite a war in Congress, but abstinence education? That seems less likely.