The Trump administration last week awarded nearly $1.5 million in teen pregnancy prevention funding to three anti-choice organizations, including anti-abortion clinic networks that critics say have a history of misrepresenting sexual health information.
The $1.5 million in grants to the Obria Group, the Women’s Care Center of Erie County, and Bethany Christian Services represents a small but notable chunk of the nearly $13.6 million awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) this month as part of a program to curb teen pregnancy. The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) was established in 2010 in the wake of overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only sex education is ineffective at preventing teen pregnancy, and its mission is to “replicate programs that have been proven effective through rigorous evaluation to reduce teenage pregnancy,” according to HHS. Since TPPP was established, the rate of teen births has declined.
In 2017 the Trump administration quietly discontinued TPPP grants, only to be forced to reinstate them in 2018 by court orders. Now, rather than attempting to quash the program, HHS is directing funding to “unqualified providers,” said Michelle Kuppersmith, director of Equity Forward.
“We’re seeing just another attempt to dismantle and sabotage this program that’s designed to help people,” Kuppersmith said. “The main issue with giving money to places like Obria and Bethany Christian Services is that we know the programs they implement do not work,” meaning fewer teens “will be exposed to potentially helpful programs,” she said.
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“Some of the organizations that received grants most recently (those announced last week) promote false and scientifically inaccurate statements on their websites about FDA-approved methods of birth control,” said Rachel Fey, director of public policy at Power to Decide. As examples, she cited Obria and Women’s Care Center.
A spokesperson for Bethany Christian Services says it uses “evidence-based training that promotes responsible sexual activity” and “does not object to contraception education.” Obria and Women’s Care Center did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Shaina Goodman, director of policy for reproductive health and rights at the National Partnership for Women & Families, the HHS funding announcement is further evidence that TPPP is “under attack.”
“The TPPP program has been lauded by independent experts as a strong example of evidence-based policymaking,” Goodman said in an email. “By redirecting funding away from programs that are proven to work and towards anti-abortion and/or anti-birth control programs … the administration is misusing tax dollars and undermining the public trust.”
The TPPP grants include $493,000 to Obria, an anti-abortion group that advocates for abstinence-only sex education and operates a network of anti-choice clinics. Although Obria does not provide contraception, it was awarded $1.7 million in Title X family planning funding from HHS earlier this year, with the possibility to be renewed for a total of $5.1 million. The organization’s Title X application said it would participate in “discussions” about birth control and “emphasize the value of abstinence,” the Washington Post reported.
“Contraceptive education and counseling, especially for adolescents, will emphasize that avoiding sex is the only 100-percent effective method to prevent pregnancy and STDs,” Obria’s Title X application said, according to the Post.
Abstinence-only sex education is “not effective,” according to the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, which concluded in a 2017 review that “government programs exclusively promoting abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) are problematic from scientific and ethical viewpoints.”
Along with Obria, HSS awarded $493,000 in teen pregnancy prevention funding to Women’s Care Center of Erie County, a network of anti-choice clinics that does not refer for abortion services, and another $493,000 to Bethany Christian Services, which made headlines in 2018 for its coercive adoption practices.
Obria and Women’s Care Center also promote medication abortion reversal, which the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists considers “ unproven and unethical.” Obria runs an abortion reversal hotline.
In addition to Obria, Women’s Care Center, and Bethany Health Services, HSS awarded grants to 26 other pregnancy prevention programs. The recent TPPP grants fall under “Tier 1” funding, for which grant recipients must use “evidence-based education models” that have been proven to reduce teen pregnancy, according to the Congressional Research Service in 2018. Those evidence-based models may include abstinence education and so-called sexual risk avoidance, a rebrand of abstinence-only sexual education.
“While several organizations on this recipient list cause some level of concern, the broader concern is that HHS has chosen to deviate at all from the way in which [TPPP] was previously administered, considering prominent bipartisan organizations and evidence experts have praised that prior approach,” Fey said.
This is not the first time the government has funded programs like Obria that promote “sexual risk avoidance.” According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), federal funding for abstinence-only programs increased from 2016 to 2018.
In 2017, Rewire.News found that at least $3.1 million in federal abstinence-only education grants from were awarded to religiously-affiliated organizations or anti-choice pregnancy centers that distribute misleading and false information about birth control and abortion services.
“All HHS has been doing since Trump came to power has been putting ideology over science,” Kuppersmith said. “The appointees that are running these programs come from a background that is woefully at odds with the point of the programs they were appointed to run.”
Kuppersmith pointed to abstinence education advocate Valerie Huber, the former chief of staff for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Population Affairs Diane Foley. Foley previously ran anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers in Colorado and once reportedly said that demonstrating how to use a condom on a banana could be considered “sexually harassing.” Before joining HHS, Huber once suggested the department “immediately eliminate” the teen pregnancy prevention program.
In its 2018 report, SIECUS said “the Trump administration has also shown consistent support for AOUM programs—including by appointing many leading abstinence-only advocates to positions of decision-making authority within the administration—despite the evidence that these programs disproportionately harm the most marginalized and vulnerable populations of young people.”
“HHS, at every turn, is trying to dismantle the programs that [it] has set up to serve people,” Kuppersmith said. “The [political] appointees have done everything they can to make these programs less effective and less helpful for the very people the agency is sworn to serve.”