The 1996 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act’s abstinence-only-until-marriage provision included a strict eight-point definition of “abstinence education.” In the past, all three federal funding streams for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—the prevention portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program, and the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) grant program—were required to adhere to this definition. Funding for the prevention portion of AFLA and all funding for CBAE have been eliminated, but the Title V abstinence-only program still remains. After expiring on June 31, 2009, it was reinstated in health care reform legislation (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) in early 2010 and allocated $50 million per year for five years. While programs funded by the current incarnation of the Title V abstinence-only program “may determine the relative emphasis to place” on each of the eight points or use the funding for mentoring or counseling programs, no programs funded by the Title V abstinence-only program may include information that contradicts any of the eight points.[1]
 
Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, P.L. 104–193
For the purposes of this section, the term “abstinence education” means an educational or motivational program which:
A
has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
B
teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;
C
teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
D
teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;
E
teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
F
teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society;
G
teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and
H
teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

This definition ensures that young people who have already engaged in sexual activity, those who have been sexually abused, or those living in nontraditional households are not only denied critical health information but are presented with shame- and fear-based messages. Other groups of young people, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, are ignored completely by this definition.  (See Reality Behind The Programs for more examples.) Although current guidance for Title V abstinence-only funding does encourage recipients to “consider the needs of [LGBTQ] youth and how their programs will be inclusive of and nonstigmatizing toward such participants,” there is no requirement that they comply with this request.[2]  Given that only five states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in other areas may communicate the message to LGBTQ students that their sexual orientation is unacceptable and incompatible with cultural and social norms. Pregnant and parenting teens also face the possibility of stigma given that they must be told that their bearing children “out of wedlock” is destructive not only to them, but to society as a whole. 
 
The proponents of the eight-point definition of “abstinence education” were guided by ideology, and they were clear in what were the underlying principles of the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In 1997, Ron Haskins and Carol Statuto Bevan, congressional staff members who were key in crafting of the “abstinence education” language, wrote that, “the explicit goal of the abstinence-only education programs is to change both behavior and community standards for the good of the country.” While some might consider the standard required by law to be outdated, they continued, the “standard was intended to align Congress with the social tradition...that sex should be confined to married couples. That both the practices and standards in many communities across the country clash with the standard required by the law is precisely the point.”[3]
 
Federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs also do little to nothing to improve the health or lives of youth. While programs receiving Title V abstinence-only funding are not required to be as restrictive as in past years and must be medically accurate, they still may omit any mention of condoms or other forms of contraception as a safe and effective way to prevent contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and avoid unintended pregnancy.  And they are prohibited from having a full conversation about condoms or contraception, as that would be considered a contradiction of the eight-point definition. In addition, there is no mandate that youth be taught communication or healthy relationship skills to prepare them for the future or ensure that current relationships are positive. 
 
Given the wealth of vital health information that these programs may deny adolescents and the probability that there are students and families who do not exist within their supposed utopian vision of remaining sexually abstinent until they engage in heterosexual marriage, the government must stop wasting taxpayer dollars on programs that are at best ineffective, and at worst biased and disparaging.  
Updated November 2010


[1] Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, “Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program: HHS-2010-ACF-ACYF-AEGP-0123,” Funding Opportunity Announcement published 2 August 2010, accessed 20 August 2010, <http://www.acf.hhs.gov/grants/open/foa/view/HHS-2010-ACF-ACYF-AEGP-0123/pdf>, 7. 
[2] “Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program: HHS-2010-ACF-ACYF-AEGP-0123,” 9. 
[3] Ron Haskins and Carol Statuto Bevan, “Abstinence education under welfare reform,” Children and Youth Services Review, 1997, 19(5/6):465-484.