Donald Trump has appointed another foe of evidence-based health information to the Department of Health and Human Services. Valerie Huber, a longtime leader of abstinence-only education advocacy groups, will be the chief of staff to the assistant secretary of health, who manages the Office of Adolescent Health among other HHS offices.
For the past decade Huber has served as the president and CEO of Ascend, formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association. Before that, she led Ohio’s abstinence education programs, a job from which she was suspended after being found guilty of ethics violations for trying to give a state contract to a company she had ties to. Research from Case Western Reserve University found that the programs Huber ran in the state contained “false and misleading information” about abortion, contraceptives, and sexually transmitted infections, in addition to perpetuating “destructive, inaccurate gender stereotypes” and presenting “religious convictions as scientific fact.” One curriculum said that teenagers who have sex before marriage should “be prepared to die.”
Huber will join a woman who thinks birth control doesn’t work (the new head of the government’s largest birth-control program) and a woman who insists against all medical evidence that abortion causes breast cancer (the new HHS public affairs officer) at her new department. Together, they will implement Trump’s intended public-health strategy for the nation: ignoring science to score political points among conservatives, while women and young people suffer the consequences.
The department Huber is about to join once commissioned a study comparing abstinence-only sex education with comprehensive sex education. Students in both programs ended up with the same number of sex partners and the same age of sexual debut. Another major study published in 2011 found a significant correlation between pro–abstinence education state policies and higher rates of teen pregnancy and births, even when correcting for socioeconomic status, teen ethnicity, and level of educational attainment. Meanwhile, the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. is still by far the highest of any developed nation, but it’s rapidly declining. So is the national teen birth rate, even though teen sex rates remain constant and the teen abortion rate is dropping, too. That shift, a 2016 study showed, is almost entirely attributable to greater access to and education about contraceptive methods. Confronted with that data, Huber told PBS that “we must normalize sexual delay more than we normalize teen sex.”
In addition to Huber’s appointment, Trump has indicated plans to push an abstinence-only HHS agenda by eliminating the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, a set of evidence-based sexuality education programs that Huber’s organization has targeted in the past. The program will be under Huber’s purview in her new role. Trump’s budget proposal calls for replacing TPPP with a $277 million investment in abstinence-only education and “personal responsibility education.”
The president’s $277 million commitment to the abstinence-before-marriage worldview stands in striking contrast to the image he’s promoted in his own life. Masquerading as spokesman “John Miller,” Trump once told a People reporter that he was cheating on second wife Marla Maples, with whom he cheated on first wife Ivana, with “three other girlfriends.” The president told Howard Stern that the 1970s were “the best time for sex” because HIV was no concern—unlike the 1980s, when having promiscuous sex was “dangerous like Vietnam,” leading Trump to feel “like a brave soldier.” He said he was sleeping with “a million” women, because “that was pre-AIDS, and you could do things in those days that today you’re at risk doing.” (Good thing he happened upon some comprehensive sex education and learned about that risk!) The now-infamous Access Hollywood tape leaked before the election found Trump bragging about trying to have sex with a married woman and forcing sexual contact on other unwilling women who were not his wife. Trump also bragged about having sex with other married women in The Art of the Comeback and told a gossip columnist he’d had sex with the writer’s girlfriend, saying, “any girl you have I can take from you if I want.”
The closest thing to sex education Trump has ever personally participated in were the multiple softcore porn videos that featured him in cameo roles. By electing a president who’s built his image around promiscuous extramarital sex and open sexual objectification of women, Republicans have ensured that any efforts to convince teens not to have sex will be undone by the leader they’re falling all over themselves to justify. For kids growing up in the Trump era, Trump’s example will send a clearer message than any scolding school materials could.