The XX Factor

Zombie Abstinence-Only Funding

Senate Republicans and their shameful Democratic enablers have rallied around one major idea for why they need to stop health care reform: too expensive. Well, that’s debatable, of course, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. Because-and I know this will surprise you, because we’re talking politicians here-they aren’t exactly being honest about their priorities. Exhibit No.1: Senator Orrin Hatch has attached an amendment to the health care reform bill that would give abstinence-only programs $50 million a year . That’s $50 million for programs that have repeatedly been shown not to work . It would be more cost-effective to flush that money directly down the toilet, because at least we wouldn’t be funding programs that discourage condom use .

Abstinence-only programs have exactly nothing to do with health care. Proponents advertised abstinence-only as a way to better health outcomes for teenagers, because they promised it would reduce STD transmissions and teenage pregnancy rates. But we already had decades of information showing that teenage pregnancy rates have been declining as contraception use has grown more popular, and methods have become more effective. Taking strategies that work and turning them on their head seems like a bad idea, but since that was the M.O. of the Bush administration, we shouldn’t be too surprised that abstinence-only was a favored boondoggle of that era. During the Bush years, the public grew increasingly suspicious of abstinence-only, and a report showing that teenage pregnancy rates were up for the first time in 15 years seemed to be the final bullet to kill abstinence-only. Indeed, the Obama administration zeroed out funding for abstinence-only programs , and I think far too many sexual health advocates thought that meant it was finally behind us.

But like many right-wing obsessions-such as missile-defense shields and assaulting Social Security-abstinence-only has taken on zombie-like qualities, and won’t die. Presumably, Senator Hatch tacked this onto the health care bill because he knew that Democrats won’t stop the bill over a $50 million boondoggle, and he gets to earn major brownie points with the religious right, which often seems to think sex (and the punishing of it) is the only political issue worth getting out of bed over.

There are a couple of reasons abstinence-only means so much to the religious right. People don’t talk about it much, but financial considerations are a big part of the religious right’s enthusiasm. Most of the abstinence-only texts in circulation are adapted from materials initially developed by Christian publishing houses to be used in evangelical youth programs. Schools often avoid having sex education in the classroom, and instead just hire an outside lecturer to berate kids about abstaining until marriage, and the vast majority of the people to hire come from the evangelical community. Of course, this isn’t just about the money, but also about the esteem-controlling these aspects of children’s education gives the religious right the warm glow of cultural dominance they crave so badly.

Another reason this is such a major issue for the religious right is that they, as a group that puts a premium on proselytizing, are eager to get their hands on the captive audience of high school students. Often, abstinence-only “educators” openly flout the law about proselytizing in schools. The ACLU is currently suing the state of Mississippi for using taxpayer dollars to fund what amounted to a religious service against premarital sex; these kinds of problems are common. Even if the textbook writers and lecturers manage to obey the letter of the law and keep their message technically secular, they use the banner of abstinence-only to promote their religious ideals about marriage, gender roles, and homosexuality. The introduction of the religious ritual of the virginity pledges to the classroom is especially unnerving, since kids who don’t want to participate in a fundamentally religious ritual are exposed to pressure to do so that’s hard to resist.

From a health care perspective, the most important thing to remember is that for abstinence-only proponents, the fact that these programs discourage sexually active teenagers to forgo condom use is a feature, not a bug. This quote sheet put together by SIECUS (PDF) shows the extent to which abstinence-only programs attempt to convince teenagers to quit using condoms. Since the evidence strongly demonstrates that abstinence-only messages don’t do much to discourage sexual intercourse- true believers not only have as much sex as other teenagers, but have it at younger ages -we have to assume the result and possible intention of all these “condoms don’t work” messages is to get kids to skip the contraception and get pregnant. For the religious right, this is the moral path, because it’s not about stopping the sin so much as making sure the sinner pays for her sins, which is why the religious right’s reaction to Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was more celebratory than ashamed. But from a public-health perspective, this is a complete disaster of a policy. It’s not much better for the majority of nonevangelical Americans who are less inclined to think sex is a sin you need to punish.

In other words, abstinence-only cannot be separated from the larger anti-choice movement from which it sprang, a movement that sees the separation of sex and pregnancy as a grave evil that must be stopped. They’re zeroing in on teenagers not because they’re concerned for their health or well-being, but because they’re a captive audience and it’s easy to get the public at large to feel uneasy about teenagers having sex. Teenagers are the most vulnerable population for the anti-choice program of mandatory pregnancy for all sexually active people (and the complete termination of homosexual sex). No wonder Senator Hatch thinks this is an easy way to score points with the base. It not only satisfies the need for sex hysteria, but it’s also an act of dominance over a vulnerable population.

Choice USA is organizing a call-in day today to pressure the Senate to drop this amendment from the health care bill. You can find out more here .

Photograph of Sen. Orrin Hatch by Alex Wong/Getty Images.