In this context of high rates of teen sexual activity and their serious public health and socioeconomic consequences, interest in abstinence education has increased over the past decade. As a result, in 1998 the federal government provided $50 million annually for five years for block grants to states to support abstinence education programs. States must provide $3 in matching funds for every $4 in federal funds, which results in a total of up to $87.5 million available annually for such programs.
These abstinence education grants are allotted to states through a formula based on the proportion of low-income children in the state relative to the total number of low-income children for all the states. States then decide which programs to fund and at what level. Most states have disbursed their funding to numerous local agencies and organizations. However, a few states, such as Massachusetts, have retained their entire funding allocation for a single statewide initiative, such as a media campaign.
Although abstinence education programs have been around for decades, the new investment raised the profile of programs that teach an unambiguous abstinence message to youth. The main factor that distinguishes the Section 510 abstinence education funding from the previous generation of federally funded abstinence education programs is the “A-H definition” (Title V Section 510 (b)(2)(A-H) of the Social Security Act), which specifies that an abstinence education program funded under the block grant must:
- Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity
- Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
- Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems
- Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity
- Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects
- Teach that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society
- Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances
- Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity
The Maternal and Child Health Bureau guidelines for these abstinence education programs offer the following interpretation of the A-H definition: “It is not necessary to place equal emphasis on each element of the definition. However, a project may not be inconsistent with any aspect of the abstinence education definition” (Maternal and Child Health Bureau 1997; Haskins and Bevan 1997). Providing instruction in or promoting the use of birth control would be inconsistent with the A-H definition.
The A-H definition of abstinence education has generated controversy. Some abstinence educators and policymakers are critical of Section 510 abstinence education programs that do not emphasize all elements of the A-H definition. These criticisms have been especially strong for some preexisting health and teenage risk reduction programs that are perceived to have simply added limited abstinence education modules to their services specifically to gain access to Section 510 funding. On the other hand, some policymakers and health educators object to the Section 510 abstinence education programs primarily because of their restrictive definition of abstinence education.
Still, since the inception of the Section 510 abstinence education funding, the number of abstinence education providers has increased dramatically. The funding has stimulated considerable discussion at the state and local level on the problem of teen sexual activity and raised local awareness and consideration of the role of abstinence education in local programs and policies. Supporters of abstinence education contend that such programs are effective because they are consistent with the developmental needs of adolescents for clear, consistent messages and boundaries. Their concern with sex education programs that teach about sexuality, contraceptives, and abstinence is that they send the mixed message that (1) teens should be abstinent, but (2), if they are going to have sex, they need information about and access to contraceptives.
On the other side, proponents of comprehensive sex education programs contend that, while abstinence is preferred, broader sex education is essential because most teens are sexually active by the time they finish high school. Comprehensive sex educators contend that teens need to be taught about and provided access to contraceptives to reduce their risk of pregnancies and STDs.
Despite these different perspectives on how best to address high rates of teen sexual activity, a common thread in the ongoing policy debate is an underlying interest in learning about effective program strategies that help youth make good choices that avoid risk-taking behaviors and promote healthy future lives. The evaluation of Section 510 abstinence education programs is designed to contribute much-needed knowledge on approaches to, and the effectiveness of, selected abstinence education programs.