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Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Continues to Blur the Intent of Its Own Guidance for Title V Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Funding

Over half a billion dollars in taxpayer money has been funneled to the states through the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding stream in the past ten years.  Since the launch of the program, however, ten states have decided to turn away these federal funds.  Numerous reports showing the programs to be ineffective have given Governors’ offices around the country pause.  In states that have pulled out of the program, the overwhelming feeling is that the funding is not in line with state law and policy and that it undermines other proven public health strategies for reducing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS. Moreover, many states have reacted to what they see as increasingly strict guidelines from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that administers the federal government’s abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. 

To minimize the backlash from the states, ACF has gone on the defensive and is now attempting to create ambiguity around its own issued guidance for the programs.  In March, ACF sent a memo to administrators of Title V funding noting that government agencies and community-based organizations that receive Title V funding are “not prohibited through any Federal policy from providing comprehensive education that includes contraceptive education through other separate programs” and that these programs should be seen as another “tool in the toolbox” for states.1 

Now, ACF is dispatching regional directors to try and persuade state health departments and Governors’ offices that Title V funding does not restrict them. Most recently, HHS’ New England Regional Director made an appearance at a hearing on abstinence-only programs in the Massachusetts legislature and announced that he had been sent by the administration to “refute the veracity of the claims” and “misrepresentations” that have been made about Title V.  Namely:

  1. That Title V prohibits abstinence-only education from being taught alongside comprehensive education; and

  2. That Title V prohibits discussion about the benefits of contraception.

In his follow-up letter to Governor Patrick, Regional Director Brian Golden stated that “One misconception I recently read claimed that federally funded abstinence programs are prohibited by federal regulation from discussing contraception except to emphasize failure rates.  This statement is not accurate.”2

Yet, since the creation of the program, language has been included in program announcement guidance indicating that contraception, including condoms, cannot be discussed, except in terms of its failure rates.  This restriction is very clearly stated in the Fiscal Year 2007 Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding program announcement under the heading of “unallowable activities.”  It states: “Neither the State nor any of its sub-awardees may use Federal or matching funds under this award to promote the use of contraception.”  This, coupled with the portion of the federal definition of “abstinence education” that says federally funded programs must have as their “exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity” means that contraception and condoms cannot be discussed except in terms of their failure rate s in Title V funded programs.

As for Golden’s other issue regarding schools simultaneously running separate programs, he seems to have deliberately missed the point.  The question at hand is not one of a total prohibition on states to discuss contraception—states are, of course, entitled to do multiple programs. In fact, for the federal government to require otherwise would be nothing short of unconstitutional.  The real question is one of a state’s ability to run multiple programs in multiple settings based on the reality of current resources.  With budgets stretched thin and only so many hours in a school day, clearly it is not feasible for most schools to run two programs and by providing funding only for the most restrictive abstinence-only-until-marriage program, the federal government has made its preferences quite clear .  

“Despite what ACF now seems to want states to believe, its guidelines for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs remain incredibly restrictive and do not reflect what states across the country want.  Engaging in a spin campaign designed to save a failing program is not serving the best interest of either the states or young people in this country. ” said Jennifer Aulwes, State Policy Coordinator for SIECUS. 

For more information on Title V funding and state participation in the program, see the SIECUS State Profiles at http://www.siecus.org/policy/states/index.html.

References

  1. Memo to State and Territorial Agencies administering or eligible to administer grants in the State Abstinence Education Grant Program funded under Title V, Section 510 of the Social Security Act,  from Joan E. Ohl, Commissioner, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Family and Youth Services Bureau, 19 March 2007.
  2. Letter from Health and Human Services Regional Director Brian Golden to Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick, May 16, 2007.

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