Federal

HHS Shifts Oversight of Sexual-Abstinence Grants

By Vaishali Honawar — January 19, 2005 3 min read
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Two federal education grant programs promoting sexual abstinence have been shifted to an agency now led by a strong supporter of abstinence education, a move that is raising concerns in some quarters.

Wade F. Horn

The Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services will now oversee the $50 million Title V grant program and the $104 million Special Projects of Regional and National Significance Community-based Abstinence Education grant program. The ACF is headed by Wade F. Horn, an assistant secretary of the department who is known for his advocacy of abstinence programs for students.

Harry Wilson, the associate commissioner of the ACF’s Family and Youth Services Bureau, said the programs would be more effective under the ACF because the agency already deals with youth problems.

“It seems like a natural fit when we are already dealing with children in vulnerable situations,” he said, adding that the decision was made by outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson along with other administration officials. The Title V program was moved under ACF in June last year, while the SPRANS grant program was transferred in December.

But Marcella Howell, the public-policy director for Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based group that supports comprehensive education on sexuality, said she was worried about moving the programs to an agency “that is by nature more political” than the one that previously administered the grants. The Health and Human Services Department’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau had administered the two programs.

Supporters of an abstinence-only approach to sex education believe that the bureau did not administer the programs as narrowly as Congress had defined them. For instance, the Maternal and Child Health Bureau sometimes gave grants to groups that also promote the use of condoms.

Defining Abstinence

Mr. Horn has often been quoted saying that he believes sexual abstinence is the only effective way for a teenager to avoid becoming a parent or getting a sexually transmitted disease. Before taking over the ACF, he headed the National Fatherhood Initiative, a conservative nonprofit organization that seeks to confront the problem of father absence.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman

Ms. Howell said several concerns have been raised recently about abstinence programs funded by the federal government. A report released in December by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said that curricula used by several such programs blur science and religion and feed students erroneous information, such as that touching another person’s genitals can result in pregnancy. (“Abstinence-Only Curricula Misleading, Report Says,” Dec. 8, 2004.)

“You are taking two programs that were administered by public-health entities who at least addressed some of our concerns and now shifting them to an agency where the head has already made clear statements about his views on marriage and sexually transmitted diseases,” Ms. Howell said. She added that the shift in supervision could result in the award of grants to programs that were not designed around research or based on science.

Mr. Wilson of the Family and Youth Services Bureau said ideology would not interfere with the agency’s decisions on awarding grants. “Our job at the federal government is to run programs the way Congress intends them to be run,” he said, adding that the competition for the grants would be “fair and open to all.”

Under the grant programs’ eight-point definition of abstinence education, grantees have to teach, among other principles, that abstinence is the “expected standard” for school-age children, that a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage” is the expected standard of sexual activity, and that nonmarital sexual activity could have “harmful psychological and physical effects.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as HHS Shifts Oversight of Sexual-Abstinence Grants

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