Bush HHS Tries End Run On Abstinence-Only Funds

The Bush Administration is planning an end run to entice states into applying for abstinence-only funds that Congress has yet to authorize, and potentially tie the hands of the next administration.

The Bush Administration Department of Health and Human Services isn’t getting much rest these days, using every moment of their final few months to leave an indelible ideological mark on government.

Last week, the Bush Administration, in the person of Robert W. Patterson of the Children, Family and Youth Services Bureau, issued a letter waiving the annual application process and review for the Title V Abstinence-Only State Grant Program.

In the letter obtained by Rewire, Patterson writes,

The good news is that with this announcement, states and territories
may apply for funds for five years, from FY 2009 through FY 2013.
States will not be required to re-apply in the four subsequent years
unless they make substantive changes to their program.


The 82-page Program Announcement (PDF) says,

The project period under this program announcement is 60 months. Applications submitted by States cover funding for FY 2009 through FY 2013. States will not be required to submit additional applications for the years FY 2010 through FY 2013 unless there are material changes made to the program.


While Patterson’s letter reminds applicants that Congress must still authorize the money, his suggestion that they can apply for five year grants implies, "that this program
has an unquestioned permanence that it does not, and has not for several
years, amidst all the short term extensions," said Bill Smith, Vice President of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS).

Smith called the letter, "an attempt to mislead the states."

Marcela Howell, Vice President of Advocates for Youth agreed, saying, "This is smoke and mirrors on the part of HHS when they know the money has not been authorized."

Congress has extended the very controversial abstinence-only program in the face of mounting evidence of its failure to produce any measurable results. Even as Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, they have chosen to allow the programs to continue rather than confront far-right proponents of abstinence-only with the program’s numerous failures as documented by public health experts.

At least twenty-three states have rejected abstinence-only-until-marriage programs so far, and the number is growing. Some states refuse because they don’t like the ideological inflexibility, the strings that the federal government puts on states who receive the money. They’ve read the studies, the non-partisan evidence, and have seen the ab-only programs at work at the local level and they are rejecting the ab-only federal money in increasing numbers.

Other states have complained that the uncertainty of the program, because of its highly politicized background, made the annual money less reliable.

The Patterson letter appears to be clever slight-of-hand, signaling to states they can sidestep normal procedures, reaching out to states who have complained about the uncertainty year-to-year, without addressing any of the concerns that lead to that uncertainty, and downplaying the fact that Congress has not yet authorized the money.

"That’s the smoke and mirrors part. Ab-Only proponents trying to lure more states back into the program without ever addressing its ineffectiveness," Howell said.

"HHS wants program plans
for five years but Congress is never likely to go that route. Instead,
what we see is desperate, wishful thinking, that at the end of the day
even limits the programming that may be delivered by stifling
innovation and incorporation of any evidence-based findings related to
ab-only," Smith said. By locking people into five year grants there would be no review, no chance to learn if the programs actually work, or could be improved.

In fact, if the Bush Administration is successful in its end run on behalf of abstinence-only programs, it could tie the hands of the next administration, at least politically. Cash-strapped states facing tight fiscal times that still accept the money for failed abstinence-only programs, will try to enforce the five-year grants that the Patterson letter offers, reluctant to give up federal money in hard times, no matter how ineffective the programs.

Congress has yet to take a bold stand against the failures of abstinence-only programs based on the growing evidence. Perhaps they could at least be moved to take a stand against this perversion of the appropriations and authorizations process by ideologues at HHS.

Patterson closes the letter with this ideological statement alienating all single parents, and ignoring the fact that abstinence-only programs are proven to leave teens ill-equipped to deal with the reality of sexually transmitted diseases,

I look forward to continuing our partnerships with states and
territories in the important task of helping American young people
experience the health, psychological, emotional, and social benefits of
keeping sexual activity, pregnancy, and childbearing in marriage.


We could all agree that the "health, psychological, emotional, and social benefits" of young people are of the utmost importance. We can even agree that abstinence and delayed sexual debut, are important components of sexuality education. But most Americans remember their youth, and given the health concerns today, believe youth who are educated with facts about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections will make better decisions for themselves.

Comprehensive sexuality education that includes abstinence and awareness of reality, based on public health standards and real evidence, is what most Americans support. It is what our government should support as well.