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Philadelphia Daily News, June 20, 2007

ABSTAINING FROM COMMON SENSE

By Carol Towarnicky

FROM the moment they were (ill-)conceived, government-funded abstinence-only programs have been immoral.

And some people once had the courage to say so, including President Clinton's adviser on teen pregnancy, Dr. Henry Foster.

In 1996, Foster told Sen. Arlen Specter that sex education that focused only on abstinence is not only impractical but immoral. Abstinence during the teen years is a good idea, but the most responsible and effective way to teach it is through comprehensive sex education, or "abstinence-plus": abstinence plus information on contraception.

Abstinence-only programs, Foster said, ignore the reality that an estimated 8 million teens are having sex. Besides, he said, such programs would be "medically immoral," since it's profoundly unethical to withhold from teens the critical facts of life.

So imagine our surprise a few years later when the Clinton administration found a way to put an abstinence-only program into practice, and most states found a way to take the millions in federal money dangled in front of them. It took some fancy footwork, not to mention cynicism.

The law required that health professionals pass on misinformation about the effectiveness of condoms to prevent AIDS, among other distortions. They were to tell young people that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects," even though there is no scientific data to back up the claim.

Of course, when it comes to gay teens, the message is even more extreme and even more destructive: No sex at all. Ever.

Now it's 10 years and more than $1 billion later. Abstinence-only programs still don't work and they're still immoral. And Democrats (yes, Democrats) are still finding a way to fund them.

But now there's a lot more proof that the programs don't work, most recently a study authorized by the Department of Health and Human Services that found no real difference in sexual activity between kids who had attended abstinence-only programs and those who didn't.

There's also proof that some abstinence-only programs are no more than fronts for Christian proselytizing and that they have become a new kind of "pork." Staffed by Bush administration cronies, faith-based organizations that run the programs have become nonprofit Halliburtons, landing multimillion-dollar contracts without real oversight, as recently documented by The Nation magazine.

Of course, even if abstinence-only programs did work, they still would be immoral, a denial of fundamental human rights to "health, information and life," according to a position paper last year from the Society of Adolescent Medicine.

So Democrats rightly voted in May to let one program that funded abstinence-only education expire. But two weeks ago, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee made a deal to increase funding of a similar program by 30 percent. They defended the deal as necessary to head off a presidential veto of the whole appropriations bill that included the money for Medicaid and Medicare. Others suggested the giveaway was needed to balance a 10 percent increase in Title X family-planning funds, as if the two were equal.

An exasperated U.S. Rep David Obey (D-Wis.) chided liberals who pointed out the unprincipled flip-flop. He told National Public Radio that progressive critics should "behave like adults" and recognize "that you can't hold your breath and turn blue and always get your own way."

It was a breathtaking trivialization of the issue. I wonder if Obey would so easily dismiss the health of seniors by, say, agreeing to provide them with inferior Medicare drugs in order to placate a few GOP congressmen. In their own way, abstinence-only programs are just as dangerous.

If Democrats don't pull the plug on this boondoggle now, after mountains of proof that abstinence-only programs are an ineffective waste of time, what justification could they ever have?

What kids don't know about safer sex can hurt them, even kill them. Obey's right about one thing: It's time for Democrats to behave like adults, moral adults, and tell young people the truth about sex, the whole truth.

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