Respond to this Article September 2002

Pork for Prudes

How conservatives score, while teaching kids not to.

By Christina Larson

On his first presidential campaign stop in South Carolina, in June 1999, George W. Bush paid a visit to an abstinence-until-marriage workshop run by Heritage Community Services, a Charleston-based nonprofit that sponsors classroom presentations in over 40 local schools to teach teenagers that "waiting on sex until marriage is the expected standard in our culture." A longtime advocate for such programs, Bush told the crowd, "The contraceptive message sends a contradictory message. It tends to undermine the message of abstinence." If elected, he vowed to support the efforts of groups like Heritage with a boost in federal funding.

After the workshop, Bush met with Heritage president Anne Badgley, who began teaching abstinence after a decade running a pro-life counseling and adoption referral center. A politically connected GOP activist, Badgley organized a meeting for Bush with local conservative leaders and put her Roladex at his disposal. "I could see he was very sincere, and I worked hard to get him elected," she recalls.

And with good reason: Delivering spectacularly on his campaign pledge, the president's 2003 budget calls for hiking federal funding for abstinence education by a third, to $135 million. Bush wants to expand the same federal abstinence programs that have awarded more than $8 million to Badgley's organization since 1997.

Heritage is just one of hundreds of abstinence-until-marriage programs now funded by the federal government, courtesy of a little-noticed provision of the 1996 welfare reform law that allocated $250 million over five years for states to promote abstinence education. Written largely by the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector and championed by former Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), the statutes bar grant recipients from discussing contraception, except to note condom failure rates, and require them to teach that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

Bush's support for abstinence-until-marriage has outraged liberals, who question whether such programs can actually reduce teen sex--and who, consequently, boycott the grants. But the effectiveness debate has largely obscured one underlying reason for the Bush administration's support: politics. Funding abstinence-until-marriage programs allows the White House to reward conservative groups by putting them on the federal gravy train.

For 30 years, sex education has been at the center of the culture wars, with liberals struggling to safeguard services that teach teens about contraception against conservatives' efforts to eliminate federal support for them. But since 1996, conservatives have adopted a new strategy: Instead of simply attacking initiatives they oppose (which, incidentally, are often administered by liberals), they have begun winning federal funding for their own alternative programs. With the administration's blessing, conservatives are breeding a new kind of federal pork geared entirely to their kindred spirits. Though it flies in the face of small-government ideology, nourishing the nascent abstinence movement with federal funds marks an important shift in GOP strategy to court its restless social-conservative base.

Defying Condom Sense

Washington first entered the national debate over sex education in the 1960s. Wilbur Cohen, Lyndon Johnson's undersecretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, raised the issue in a 1965 report, "Family Planning: A Freedom to Choose," and the following year awarded a grant to a private, left-leaning organization called the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) to design the first teacher-training manual for sexuality education. Aside from developing curricula, however, Washington did not mandate or directly fund sex education in schools. It did, however, under Johnson begin to pour federal dollars into local health clinics that provided contraceptive services and counseling to adults--and later to teens referred to the clinics by school nurses.

In 1970, with the support of the Nixon administration, which believed informed access to contraception would limit global population growth (one of Nixon's pet concerns), Congress passed Title X of the Public Health Services Act, the primary federal program for the provision of family planning services. Title X funded the expansion of a national network of public and private clinics, which provided information and contraception on a sliding scale based on income. Today, state and local health departments run about 60 percent of these clinics, while the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the largest private provider of family planning services, administers another 14 percent.

These federally supported family planning clinics became deeply controversial after 1976, when the Republican National Committee, in the wake of Roe v. Wade, adopted its first pro-life platform. Though Title X money never directly funded abortions, pro-life groups complained that, by supporting family planning clinics, it effectively liberalized public attitudes toward sex and abortion. Conservatives also suspected that family planning organizations were the force behind immoral sex education in the schools. Groups like the National Right to Life Committee and their allies in Congress began a yearly campaign to slash federal funding. Under Ronald Reagan, the first president with a political commitment to the pro-life movement, Title X was cut by nearly a quarter during his first year in office--though congressional Democrats later restored some of the money.

During the 1980s and 1990s, attacks on Title X and legalized abortion riled pro-choice liberals and family planning organizations supported in part by decreasing federal funds. Over the years, these groups have become a considerable political force. Planned Parenthood, which has clinics in almost every large metropolitan area, leverages its size and strength to distribute voter guides and organize get-out-the-vote drives on behalf of pro-choice candidates nationwide. While it occasionally endorses liberal Republicans in local elections, at the national level, Planned Parenthood nearly always supports Democrats. In 2000, for instance, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the group's lobbying arm, campaigned ardently for Al Gore, spending millions on television ads in a handful of swing states like Florida and Michigan to remind voters that George W. Bush cut family planning in Texas and pledged to "do everything in my power to restrict abortions." While Planned Parenthood doesn't lobby with federal funds--the vast majority of its budget comes from private donations--conservatives cry foul that any federal dollars support an organization with a history of stumping for Democrats.

Until recently, conservatives have had limited success in securing federal support for their own programs. In 1982, two Republican senators, Jeremiah Denton and Orrin Hatch, pushed through the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA). This measure provided the seed money to research "chastity" curriculum in schools--the precursor to many of today's abstinence programs, including the popular "Sex Respect" curriculum, developed by the evangelical group Concerned Women for America in the 1980s. However, AFLA's funding for pilot programs remained low (never exceeding $10 million), and its credibility was damaged by a 1983 lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which alleged that some of its programs violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

With limited backing and few federal dollars, the abstinence crusade remained quite small, overshadowed by the primary anti-abortion passions of conservative groups in the 1980s and early 1990s. But support for the movement swelled with the wave of GOP successes in the 1994 congressional elections. Newly empowered in Congress, ideological Republicans saw that support for the pro-life movement was collapsing in the wake of clinic bombings by extremists, and they turned their attention to bolstering funding for abstinence education instead. If they couldn't keep Planned Parenthood from getting federal funds, at least they should get some of their own.

Virgin Territory

In 1996, the welfare reform act opened up the funding floodgates. Through a provision championed by then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) during an eleventh-hour markup session with no public debate, the new law provided conservatives with federal funding in the form of grants to the state health departments to create abstinence education programs. Robert Rector, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, helped write the law's controversial provision for abstinence education. Unlike Title X, which mainly funds family planning clinics, the new provision put the federal government in the position of directly funding sex education in both public and private schools. Until then, sex education had been funded and directed at the state or local level (the exception being recent HIV/AIDS prevention workshops offered by educators or public officials trained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)). Because the provision's language makes lessons about contraception taboo--beyond noting condom failure rates--it all but guarantees that liberal groups won't apply for the grants.

The new money was routed through state health departments, which reacted quizzically. "I don't think states were ready for it or knew quite how to deal with it," says Montana's abstinence coordinator, Jon Berg. Many state health officials, dubious of abstinence education, instead used the money to fund everything but abstinence instruction. Hawaii funded after-school tutoring and extracurriculars; Massachusetts spent most of its money on a media campaign; and California simply refused the federal grant.

This approach quickly drew fire from conservatives, who responded by creating the National Council on Abstinence Education (NCAE) to capitalize on the new funding stream and pressure states to fund classroom abstinence instruction, rather than extracurricular activities. The group elected Peter Brandt, a conservative strategist and director of issue response for Focus on the Family, as its leader and spokesman. In several conservative states, the NCAE's lobbying efforts succeeded. Governors transferred control of the abstinence programs from state health departments to handpicked conservative commissions.

In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who annually proclaims Valentine's Day as "Marriage Day," shut down the health department's plans to fund after-school tutoring and installed as director of his newly created Governor's Program on Abstinence Dan Richey, a former state senator and Christian activist. "I want to be involved," Foster told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "I want to make sure that the people [responsible for program implementation] are at least somewhat faith-based--people who have a real interest in abstinence, not technocrats." Richey withdrew preliminary contracts with nonpartisan groups like the YMCA and awarded grants to conservative groups, including the state affiliate of Focus on the Family.

In South Carolina, former Gov. David Beasley, a Republican who once tried to ban the state health department from distributing condoms to teens in public clinics, bypassed the competitive bidding process most states employ to award grants, and handed its entire $1.3 million annual allotment to Badgley's Heritage Community Services. (Despite its state funding, Heritage programs have not always been welcome. In Badgley's home turf of Charleston County, the school board blocked Heritage programs from public schools in 1998 in order to continue teaching about contraception.)

And in Arkansas, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, formerly the president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, also appointed an abstinence commission. Whereas only a decade ago, state officials were urging school-based health clinics to distribute contraception, today Arkansas is pushing a $1.4 million-a-year abstinence program run by conservatives.

Not surprisingly, state abstinence programs have attracted passionate criticism from liberals, and some programs have faced charges of fraud and mismanagement. The first round of contracts awarded by Arkansas' abstinence program was delayed by the state legislature, which suspected bias in the grant review process toward groups aligned with national conservative organizations; the legislators subsequently learned that the governor's abstinence committee had kept no meeting minutes or governing bylaws. In Louisiana, the ACLU recently won a suit in federal court against the state after discovering that some abstinence grant recipients had used the money for proselytizing, including lessons on the Virgin Mary as an exemplar of abstinence, and for prayer vigils outside abortion clinics.

Well-Endowed

To circumvent skeptical state health departments, conservative lawmakers are maneuvering more federal money directly into the hands of abstinence enthusiasts. In 2000, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) secured an amendment to the annual Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill to fund a new $20-million abstinence program. (In order to secure its passage, Istook struck a bargain with House Democrats to drop a Republican-backed provision limiting teens' access to Title X-funded clinics.) The following year, he successfully doubled the program budget to $40 million. Istook's program allows nonprofits--notably, conservative and faith-based groups in states where abstinence education is unpopular--to apply directly to the federal government for funding.

Nationally, conservative activists organize grant-writing workshops to help local abstinence groups capitalize on federal funding. When HHS announced Istook's new grant program, its office was flooded with nearly 400 applications. "If it hadn't been for us, no one would have known about this program," says Leslee Unruh, founder and president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls, S.D. Unruh used her database of addresses and emails, garnered from a decade on the abstinence speaker circuit, to get out the word and train grassroots activists how to approach the federal government for money.

In her efforts to tut-or abstinence educators about grant proposals, Unruh has gotten "nothing but support from the Bush administration," as she told The Washington Post. Michelle Lawler, the HHS program manager overseeing abstinence funding, has given tips on writing grant applications at the National Abstinence Clearinghouse's an-nual conferences for the past two years. When the inaugural grants for Istook's program were announced last June, the organizational impact of conservatives was evident. Nearly every group that received funding had ties to either the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, a conservative lawmaker, or to a faith-based group.

This relationship is, of course, reciprocal. Not only does the Bush administration help prepare conservatives to write winning grant applications, but movement leaders continually remind abstinence educators that growing federal funding for their programs is possible because of the administration's support. At this year's National Abstinence Clearinghouse, held in July in Washington, D.C., a framed photograph of Bush smiling with Unruh and her husband was displayed at the conference registration table, and a giant banner to the left of the speaker's podium proclaimed, "President Bush, thank you for supporting Abstinence-Until-Marriage." The Heritage Foundation's Rector told the crowd, "If it was not for the steadfast support of President Bush today, the survival of [abstinence-until-marriage funding under welfare] would be very much in peril." HHS administrator Wade Horn received a standing ovation after a speech reaffirming the Bush administration's commitment to increasing financial support for abstinence programs.

Market Penetration

Over the past five years, federal grants have spurred the growth, not just of abstinence curricula in many public schools, but also of an entire secondary industry in brochures, media campaigns, speakers, and novelty items to facilitate the new state programs. "All of a sudden, abstinence is a business," says Unruh, who estimates that more than 900 new organizations have crop-ped up in the last decade. The vast majority of companies developing and marketing abstinence mat-erial are, not surprisingly, politically conservative.

Today, for instance, educators nationwide go to longtime Bush adviser Dr. Joe McIlhaney, president of the Austin-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health, for graphic slides depicting late-stage STDs as a deterrent to sexual activity. Conservative think tanks like the Family Research Institute churn out statistics on condom failure rates for abstinence activists to share with schools and youth centers. The National Abstinence Clearinghouse sells books by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, videos by the Family Research Council, even stickers and keychains emblazoned with slogans such as "I'm Worth Waiting For" and "Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date." The movement has also given rise to "abstinence speakers"--a hot new subgroup of motivational speakers. For $1,500 a day, a classroom planner can book Frank Shelton, a graduate of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, to preach the good word about abstinence using parables and celebrity impersonations.

These abstinence-product companies eagerly flaunt the stamp of official approval that comes with government sanction. Brochures for the abstinence PEERS Project, for example, advertise being "funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services." The Responsible Social Values Program (RSVP), a training seminar for abstinence educators, includes a starred bullet point on its registration form to suggest that school districts or state health departments spend their allotment of federal abstinence funds on the RSVP program. And a Heartbeats International brochure selling abstinence videos for classroom use outlines its compatibility with any federally funded program.

Some of these organizations would not exist were it not for federal funding. The McLennan County (Texas) Collaborative Abstinence Project, which bills itself as "the Wal-Mart of abstinence products," kicked off with a $747,000 grant and an inception banquet that boasted as its keynote speaker no lesser a luminary than then-Gov. George W. Bush. Its funding from private contributions, however, in 2000 was only $100, according to federal tax filings.

The pro-life movement has also tapped into federal abstinence funding by reincarnating many of its "crisis pregnancy centers" (CPCs) as providers of abstinence education. CPCs are counseling centers which advise women to pursue adoption rather than terminate their pregnancies; they are often listed alongside family planning clinics in phone books to lure in women who may be considering abortions. A 1991 congressional inquiry found some CPCs had shown graphic abortion videos to women awaiting pregnancy test results in order to dissuade them from having abortions. Though many centers do provide prenatal care to young mothers, the federal government has largely kept pro-life organizations at arms length since the abortion clinic bombings and doctor murders of the 1990s.

However, CPCs that have transformed themselves into abstinence-educators have recently received federal grants. Several affiliates of Heartbeat International, a network of "life-affirming pregnancy resource centers" won grants under Istook's program. Heartbeat's president, Dr. Peggy Hartshorn, spoke at the National Abstinence Conference on "Why Abstinence and CPCs go together." In South Carolina, Heritage Community Services was founded as an adjunct to Badgley's Lowcountry Crisis Pregnancy Center; though incorporated as separate nonprofits, Heritage and Lowcountry share some staff, including their president.

As a political instrument, the appeal of stoking the abstinence movement lies not just in its ability to finance conservatives' programs, but also to deny money to traditional, secular family planning organizations. Ohio recently declined nearly $1 million from the CDC for HIV/AIDS prevention programs, which SIECUS trains educators to teach, because conservative legislators decided that the curriculum conflicted with the state's exclusionary emphasis on abstinence. Similarly, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed diverting $1 million from family planning clinics to abstinence education programs. Of course, supporters like Peter Brandt of the National Council on Abstinence Education argue that funding conservative groups at the expense of liberal ones isn't dirty politics, but merely an attempt to ensure equality. "These [abstinence] programs in effect took money away from a monopoly," he says.

Trojan Horse

With Bush's blessing, conservatives are pressing for more federal dollars. Rep. Istook, for one, has proposed increasing funding for his program to $73 million--a proposal, which, among other things, would divert $17 million away from the CDC and its HIV/AIDS prevention programs. Although the House voted down the measure, President Bush has since identified it as one of his budget priorities for 2003. The administration's goal is to bring the total funding for abstinence programs to $135 million and put it on par with what the White House cites as the federal funding level for "programs that teach about contraception use." That figure, however, accounts for everything from counseling teens in public clinics to HIV/AIDS hotlines; little of that money gets spent directly on classroom instruction. In contrast, conservatives want virtually all of the federal abstinence money to fund school programs.

Another critical difference is that federal abstinence programs mandate what the curricula must teach (only abstinence instruction), whereas federal programs that teach about contraception are not required to do so by legislative intent. State and local health officials could conceivably spend Title X money on teaching abstinence-until-marriage if they choose. (Some states have, in fact, funded abstinence counseling with federal family planning funds.) Few do, however, because the prevailing mainstream scientific opinion holds that instruction about contraception is more effective in preventing disease and unwanted pregnancy than a pure abstinence message. The American Medical Association, the CDC, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all favor traditional sex education. Even Surgeon General David Satcher, a Clinton holdover, last year released an extensive report on human sexuality that questioned the value of abstinence-until-marriage education. (The Bush administration responded by cutting Satcher's staff, effectively silencing him for the remainder of his term.)

Though evidence that abstinence programs work is extremely thin, even by conservatives' own admission, advocates portray that weakness as a further reason for increasing program funding. "Unless we put money there to find out whether it works," says HHS Deputy Secretary Claude Allen, "we will never know." Yet research to distinguish potentially promising programs from the duds is hampered by ambiguities in the welfare reform law itself. Despite being explicit in the particulars of its purpose ("a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity"), the legislation avoids actually defining sexual activity (does oral sex count as sex?), which has led researchers to quibble over what it means to measure changes in rates of teen sex. Of course, many grassroots educators are deeply reluctant to gather any data about their students' sex lives, arguing that even posing questions for the sake of research could undermine their mission to exclusively promote abstinence.

When President Bush unveiled his 2003 budget in February, he argued that federal funding should be linked to measured results of government programs. Under Bush's accountability plan, the Office of Management and Budget will grade each program, and those deemed ineffective or inefficient will be axed or trimmed. Bush's budget director Mitch Daniels pledged, "There are plenty of places to reduce spending when you separate the effective programs from the ineffective programs. This budget will take a long step toward governing with accountability."

But those same rules don't seem to apply when it comes to abstinence programs--a sure sign that such programs are more about politics than public health in the administration's eyes. Abstinence-until-marriage funding is part of a broader administration strategy of using federal largesse to feed and broaden its electoral base that includes imposing steel tariffs to win union votes, boosting crop subsidies to woo farmers, and buying back oil leases in Florida to help Gov. Jeb Bush win reelection. Despite its professed fealty to the GOP's historic small-government conservatism, White House support for abstinence programs is yet another sign that the Bush administration has decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

As Seen On TV

Besides training enthusiastic young abstinence educators, Heritage Community Services is now working on what president and founder Anne Badgley calls "a phenomenally exciting project . . . an infomercial!" The idea for the 30-minute presentation extolling the physical and psychological benefits of abstinence came from similar paid product placements Badgley has seen on television. "It's like when you're selling exercise equipment," she explains. "You want to make people think, 'Wow, that sounds cool!'"

Several state abstinence programs have hired major advertising firms to design 30-second television and radio spots like Texas's catchy "Zip-It" campaign, which features original hip-hop music, a close-up shot of a DJ scratching an LP, and the phrase "You Don't Have To Prove Your Love" flashing across the screen. "The point was to make this something that's really hip and cool for the kids," says Sherry Matthews, president of Sherry Matthews Advertising Agency in Texas, which produced the ad for around $395,000.

Idaho's state campaign tried using reverse psychology to show teens what was potentially uncool about having sex. Their television spots, produced by es/drake ad agency in Boise, Idaho, were spoofs of ads for popular dolls. "Action Teen Father," for example, resembles a Ken doll with a mullet haircut and faded jeans, and comes complete with a crib, diaper bag, "Action Baby Buggy," and food stamps. (His girlfriend, "Teen Mommy Darcie," is sold separately.) Although the message-- "Teen parenting isn't fun"--flashes in the final frame, some younger viewers apparently didn't get the point. According to Shelly Rambo Robertson of the Idaho Department of Health, a few parents complained that their children thought the toys were genuine and wanted to buy "Teen Mommy Darcie."

Whether such ads can influence behavior is a hotly contested question, with criticism coming from both liberals, who find the abstinence message unrealistic, and conservatives, who think television isn't the way to sell it. Unfortunately, most evaluations of media campaigns reveal little about their impact on teen pregnancy and STD rates. A 1999 study by the Maternal Child and Health Bureau, which administers the federal abstinence grants, discovered that more states measured success by tracking additional media coverage than by tracking changes in teen sexual activity.

--Christina Larson

Christina Larson is the associate publisher of The Washington Monthly.


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