Early this year, Congress will work to renew welfare reform by
reauthorizing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
program. As part of this process, Congress will also seek to
reauthorize the Title V abstinence education program that was
created, along with TANF, in the original 1996 welfare reform act,
the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act
(PRWORA). It is expected that advocates of "safe sex" programs will
use the welfare reform debate as an opportunity to push for
additional federal funding for comprehensive sex education and
contraception promotion programs in the name of reducing the
occurrence of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Government Funding for Contraceptive
Promotion and Services
fact, programs promoting contraceptive use already receive very
large amounts of government funding. In 2002, the federal and state
governments spent an estimated $1.73 billion on a wide variety of
contraception promotion and pregnancy prevention programs. More
than a third of that money ($653 million) was spent specifically to
fund contraceptive programs for teens.
programs are often called safe sex programs, comprehensive sex-ed
programs, or STD (sexually transmitted disease) prevention
programs. These programs are also misleadingly characterized as
"abstinence plus" or "abstinence first" programs although, in fact,
they contain little or no abstinence content. Most contraceptive
promotion or comprehensive sex-ed curricula contain material that
is alarming and offensive to most parents.
contrast, programs teaching teens to abstain from sexual activity
received only an estimated $144.1 million in 2002. Overall,
government spent $12 to promote contraception for every dollar
spent to encourage abstinence.
However, these spending priorities are
exactly the opposite of what parents in the United States say they
want taught to their teens. In a recent Zogby poll, only 8 percent
of parents surveyed said they believe that teaching teens how to
use a condom is more important than teaching teens to abstain from
sexual activity. Instead, an overwhelming majority--85 percent--of
parents said that the emphasis placed on abstinence for teens
should be equal to or greater than the emphasis placed on
Risks of Early Sexual Activity
Early sexual activity has harmful effects
on the health, psychological well-being, and long-term life
prospects of teens, and these harmful effects will be reduced only
slightly by contraceptive use.
Teens who are sexually active are more
likely to be depressed and are more likely to attempt suicide.
Beginning sexual activity at a young age greatly increases the
probability of becoming infected with sexually transmitted
diseases. Girls who begin sexual activity at an earlier age are far
more likely to have abortions.
Women who begin sexual activity at an
early age are far more likely to become pregnant and give birth out
of wedlock and to be single mothers. Since single mothers are far
more likely to be poor, early sexual activity is linked to higher
levels of child and maternal poverty.
Early sexual activity seriously undermines
the ability of girls to form stable marriages as adults. When
compared to women who began sexual activity in their early 20s,
girls who initiated sexual activity at ages 13 or 14 were less than
half as likely to be in stable marriages in their 30s. Beginning
sexual activity at an older age, however, is linked to higher
levels of personal happiness in adult years.
Regrettably, relatively few teens receive
a clear message about the harmful effects of early sexual activity;
few are taught that society expects teens to delay sexual activity.
Instead, most safe sex/comprehensive sex-ed programs send the
clear, if implicit, message that society expects and condones teen
sexual activity. The main message is that it's okay for teens to
have sex as long as they use condoms.
Abstinence education programs seek to
encourage a delay in sexual activity. Abstinence is widely popular,
and many evaluations show that abstinence education programs can
substantially reduce teen sexual activity. Despite this, there is
currently relatively little government funding for abstinence
Given the alarming content of most
comprehensive sex-ed programs, and given the current funding
imbalance between contraceptive promotion and abstinence programs,
efforts to increase funding for contraceptive programs for teens
would be dangerously counterproductive. Any new monies devoted to
preventing pregnancy should be directed not to amply funded
contraception programs, but to abstinence education programs that
teach teens to delay sexual activity, reveal the harm caused by
casual sex with multiple partners, and help young people to prepare
for fidelity, intimacy, and healthy marriage.
Melissa G. Pardue is Harry and
Jeanette Weinberg Fellow in Social Welfare Policy in the Domestic
Policy Studies Department, Robert E. Rector
is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and Shannan
Martin is Research Assistant in Welfare Policy at The Heritage