…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
An Abstinence-Only Approach to Healthcare Reform
Categories: Commentary, Healthcare

by Meg White

Instead of working on a healthcare plan that uses funding wisely, the Senate Finance Committee showed its proclivity for wasting taxpayer money in order to prop up flagging conservative ideology this week.

Not only have they refused to embrace measures that would cut the costs of healthcare while expanding coverage (public option, single payer, closing the donut hole), conservative committee members voted to spend $50 million a year on a program that has proved not only that it does not work, but it does the opposite of what it is supposed to do.

Working late into the evening on amendments to the proposed America’s Healthy Future Act Tuesday, the Finance Committee took the time to undermine President Obama’s request that the $50 million a year that goes to support state programs offering abstinence-only education in public schools be redirected to a program that offers a more comprehensive approach. The amendment reinstating abstinence-only education funding was presented by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), but it got two crucial votes from Blue Dog Democrats on the committee, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, passing by a narrow 12-11.

This clearly isn’t something that Lincoln and Conrad signed onto because it would pass anyway, using political expediency to avoid the right-wing accusation that the senators voted to teach schoolchildren how to have sex. No, simple math shows the amendment passed because of them. Furthermore, they defied the president’s 2010 budget proposal and undermined the whole idea of fiscal conservancy that supposedly underlies their “Blue Dog” membership status.

Katie Connolly of Newsweek’s The Gaggle points out the hypocrisy, as if it weren’t already obvious enough:

It’s an absolute waste of money. This is the sort of thing Republicans usually wail about — the federal government propping up a program where there is no evidence that said program works.

Furthermore, Lincoln and Conrad effectively voted against the spirit of the Hatch Amendment when they presumably supported Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus’ alternate amendment. Offered as a direct challenge to the abstinence-only measure, Baucus’ amendment would provide a more comprehensive approach, teaching kids about contraception and sexually-transmitted diseases alongside lessons on abstinence. Baucus’ amendment passed 14-9.

(Because the Senate vote-counting site doesn’t list committee votes on amendments, and since neither the Finance Committee’s site nor Thomas.gov have been updated to display the vote totals on the amendments, I have made the assumption that all 13 Democrats on the committee plus one Republican voted for the Baucus amendment, to make for a total of 14 yeas. If anyone can find the roll call on the amendment, I’d be interested in seeing it.)

In the end the two amendments will have to be reconciled, a thought that is ultimately quite amusing. How do you “reconcile” with people who refuse to acknowledge the facts? I mean, it would be one thing if Hatch came out and said that the only reason he was offering the amendment was because of ideology, but instead he made baseless claims that abstinence-only works.

Countless studies have confirmed that abstinence-only education does not make teens any more likely to refrain from sex than comprehensive sex ed. Worse, some studies have found that relying on abstinence-only education makes it more likely (a whopping 50 percent more likely in this 2007 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health) that girls will become pregnant.

As if to underscore this point, the state that has received the most money nationally for abstinence-only education has said “no thanks” to the funding on a relatively large scale. School districts in Texas are giving up the federal money in favor of evidence-based programs that have proven positive results. The state currently has the third-highest teen birth rate in the country and the highest percentage of teen mothers giving birth more than once, factors Austin school officials said influenced their decision to shift to more comprehensive programs. Also, two state legislators recently pledged in an op-ed that they would reintroduce legislation in the next session to ensure that Texas’ public school students receive comprehensive and accurate information in sex ed class.

But there is a far more insidious feature of abstinence-only and pro-life programs: They use federal funds to lie to America’s children.

A study conducted on behalf of Rep. Henry Waxman’s House Oversight Committee, more than 80 percent of federally-funded abstinence-only programs “contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health,” including, but not limited to, insisting that condoms do not protect against pregnancy or sexually-transmitted diseases and presenting gender stereotypes and/or religious ideology as scientific fact.

Presumably, the thought is that kids can be coerced into abstinence. Not only is that not likely to be effective, but it’s damaging to the psyche. Eventually, whether grown up or not, these students will be exposed to sex. And if they are brought up thinking it is a scary, damaging thing, who knows what kind of risky and abusive situations they’ll allow themselves to be wrapped up in, out of fear of the act or distaste over being lied to.

Support for pregnant teens isn’t faring much better. A recent study on federally-funded pregnancy crisis centers by RH Reality Check, the Feminist Majority Foundation and Stuart Productions found that these “fake clinics” are “among the most cynical of medical charades” in that they lure pregnant women in with the promise of free services, only to distribute lies along with them.

The study’s authors say the clinics “promote scientific and medical fallacies about the consequences of abortion and birth control to intimidate women out of seeking these services. These lies range from the most outrageous — that abortion causes breast cancer and suicide — to the most irresponsible — that condoms will not protect you from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.”

So, while I appreciate the more-intense-than-normal coverage of this attempt to reinstate federal funding for abstinence-only education, the fact that Democrats want to continue to fund programs that systematically demean women and could potentially teach children to fear natural urges and dread sexual activity well into adulthood is far more troubling. It goes beyond “wasting” taxpayer money to “misappropriating” it.

In truth, these latest votes are simply another example of how women’s health has been used in a cynical attempt to defeat healthcare reform, and Lincoln and Conrad are just two of many who’ve fallen for it.

Jessica Arons of the Center for American Progress blogging today at RH Reality Check correctly points out that “abortion has become a popular sideshow in the three-ring circus of the debate over health care reform.” But then she goes on to insist that “opponents and supporters of abortion rights agreed early on, in theory, to maintain the status quo with ‘abortion neutral’ health care legislation,” which is just not true.

Right from the very beginning, careful observers could see that reproductive health was going to play an active role in further polarizing this debate. The National Organization for Women courageously pushed for the rights of poor women to access the full range of family planning services in their statements on healthcare reform. On the other side, right-wing activists made it clear from the very beginning that they planned to use the abortion issue to bludgeon healthcare reform into insignificance.

While it is true that politicians on the left have tried to “sell choice for change” by offering up compromises to funding reproductive health as a way to get bipartisan healthcare reform accomplished, it has had basically the same effect as Obama’s opening the healthcare debate with a compromise. You give Republicans an inch, and they try to repeal Roe v. Wade.

But in a committee headed by a senator who said his reason for voting against the public option was that it will not get the 60 votes required to override a filibuster on the Senate floor, is there any surprise that facts and efficacy are compromised away, while ideology and lies get the full faith and backing of the law?

The Finance Committee clearly thinks it has the time and political capital to waste on abstinence-only education, a program that spends our tax money on lying to children. But in a country where someone dies every 12 minutes due to a lack of healthcare coverage, not all of us have the luxury of the congressional clock.

I guess we’ll just have to practice abstinence from illness until they get their act together.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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