The Trump administration is making a mistake by encouraging abstinence-only sex education programs, which haven't been shown to help prevent teen pregnancy or cut rates of sexually transmitted diseases.
For all the Trump administration’s work to discourage abortions, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is taking a backward approach when it comes to preventing unwanted teen pregnancies.
Steadily, the department appears to be shifting its efforts away from evidence-based, comprehensive sex education programs to favor abstinence-only approaches that haven’t been shown to work.
To start, HHS tried to cut off funding for dozens of existing Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants. King County and other grant recipients fought this in court and won, with multiple federal judges ruling the government couldn’t abruptly terminate the five-year awards for no reason two years before they were set to run out.
Now, HHS is trying a different tack: changing the rules for how it awards the Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants in the future.
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The new guidelines dilute or eliminate requirements that the grant money go toward sex-education programs that have undergone rigorous study and been proven effective and scientifically accurate. They also add language about “helping youth delay sex,” “cessation support” and addressing youth sexual risk “holistically.”
This policy threatens to halt the substantial progress the United States has made toward reducing teen pregnancy rates, which fell by 67 percent between 1991 and 2016. The changes also appear to diverge from what Congress intended when it created the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program. This year, Congress’ $101 million appropriation specifies putting the money toward “programs that have been proven effective through rigorous evaluation.”
Nearly four out of five teen pregnancies are unintended, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet a CDC review of scientific studies found no conclusive evidence that abstinence-only sex education helps prevent teen pregnancies, delays the start of sexual activity or reduces teens’ risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
Conversely, comprehensive programs — which teach about birth control and disease prevention in addition to abstinence — have been found to successfully curb teenage sexual activity, reduce rates of unprotected sex and cut sexually-transmitted infection rates.
The federal government has restored King County’s grant funding for the coming year, due to the county’s court victory in May. But, in part because HHS is appealing the ruling, the county isn’t sure about whether it will get the final $1 million it needs to finish analyzing its FLASH sexual education program, which is used in school districts throughout the county and nationwide.
Losing the 2019 funding would hurt the county’s ability to finish studying the program’s effectiveness and update the curriculum based on those findings, said Heather Maisen, King County’s family planning program manager.
Planned Parenthood affiliates in the Northwest and elsewhere are now suing to block HHS from changing the Teen Pregnancy Prevention grant requirements, arguing the new rules break the law by steering money away from comprehensive, research-based sex education.
The Trump administration should not be fighting this issue in court but instead focusing on what is proven to work.
That would be giving American teenagers the most accurate information about their sexual health, so they can make informed choices that reduce their risk of pregnancy and infection.