Though Democrats have taken control of Congress, abstinence-only programs are surviving attempts to shut them down. And they could even get an increase with the aid of an unlikely ally: House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), one of the old liberal lions.That's the type of cowardly political calculation that makes people hate Democrats. Thankfully, not all are going along.
Obey is supporting abstinence-only education, saying he wants to steer his panel away from the highly charged terrain of moral issues.
And by increasing funding for such programs, he is also making a political calculation that he can pick up some Republican support for much bigger health and social welfare programs that the White House wants to cut.
However, the Senate could take a different direction. Its committee leaders are trying to reduce funding for abstinence-only education, but individual senators are expected to try to prevent that.Yeah, I can imagine all the D.C. consultants are telling Democrats to not only not cut the aid, but increase it. Look, this is something where it's obvious Democrats aren't standing on principle - just like with the war funding and the FISA capitulations - because they think it will help them politically, but it will really hurt because it pisses of the base and, in general, people see them as not standing for what they believe in.
The issue could flare up soon on the Senate floor during debate over legislation to fund the Labor Department and the Health and Human Services Department.
The reversal of fortunes for abstinence-only education has caused political discomfort for some Democrats.
"I've made clear to my colleagues that I don't believe abstinence-only is an effective approach, or that it makes sense to increase funding," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), one of the most prominent critics of the programs. "I haven't been able to prevail on the issue of appropriations but plan to continue to fight for better programs for youth."
In 2004, Waxman issued a report cataloging inaccuracies in the curricula of abstinence-only programs.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the intraparty feud, Obey's office declined a request for an interview.
Some foes of abstinence-only education are feeling abandoned.
"The Democrats, and most notably Henry Waxman, used the abstinence-only issue as the cornerstone of the claim that the Bush administration was putting ideology and politics ahead of science," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit policy organization on sexual health. "Now they suddenly have gone mute and silent when their own people are in power. There is an element of political hypocrisy here."
Wagoner supports what is known as comprehensive sex education, which includes instruction both on abstinence and condoms, and is the leading alternative to abstinence-only programs.
Supporters of abstinence-only education are relishing the squabble.
"My sense is that moderate Democrats in particular do not want to be saddled with killing abstinence education," said Robert Rector, a senior policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"Certainly, for the freshman Democrats, that would be a very difficult vote. People do not want the Democratic Party, after it has taken over Congress, to be out in front saying, 'We are jettisoning abstinence education and going back to condoms for all kids.'"
Besides, as I detailed in my earlier post about the global abortion study, Democrats have an opportunity to turn things around on the Republicans on these "moral issues." Comprehensive sex ed and availability of contraception decrease the rate of abortion. In fact, those are the only things that work. Democrats can easily make Republicans look like the ideological hard-liners they are, but they refuse because they are scared by being so convinced conservative talking points work against them (which they do, but only because Democrats let them).
Jackie Payne, Planned Parenthood's head Washington lobbyist, sees progress in the attempt to change the Title V funding rules, even if it has been sidelined for now. "That is tangible evidence that there is going to be an end" to federal funding for abstinence-only programs, Payne said.One can hope it changes after the next election, but how many young people will be hurt because of the politics of it all?
Rector, the policy analyst who helped create abstinence programs, said he believed that Democrats were only waiting for a politically opportune time to deliver the fatal blow.
"I don't think they are going to attempt that until after the 2008 elections," he said. "I don't think that Democrats, before an election, want that particular albatross wrapped around their necks."