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The Bush Years, Redux! Abstinence-Only Education Is Back.

Last night, the Senate Finance Committee tried to ensure that one of the failures of the Bush administration will live on--in sex-ed classes across the country. Orrin Hatch’s amendment to provide $50 million a year for abstinence-only education passed by one vote, 12-11, with Blanche Lincoln and Kent Conrad joining the Republicans to tip the balance. After Obama’s election, abstinence advocates feared that Bush’s massive federal program for abstinence-only education--totaling some $176 million a year--would be dismantled. And, indeed, Obama’s first budget eliminated federal funding for such programs, instead putting money into “evidence-based” teen pregnancy prevention programs. But now, the Finance Committee vote could mean that Bush’s legacy will continue well past Obama’s first term, funding the so-called Title V block grants to states through 2014.

The vote deals a blow to the advocates of comprehensive sex education, who have wielded definitive evidence that ab-only education is ineffective, misleading, and dangerous to the health of young people. (One of the most recent studies links ab-only education to a 10% decline in teen contraceptive use, for example—not surprising when some of the teaching material tells kids to believe that condoms aren’t effective at preventing HIV because latex is “porous.”) Even more tellingly, nearly half the states in the country have come to the same realization—23 states have rejected the federal funds for abstinence-only education, even in the midst of a deep fiscal crisis, having deemed such programs to be ineffective and the regulations for using the funding onerous. The states’ message to the federal government couldn’t be clearer: stop wasting money on programs that don’t work.

Unfortunately, the centrists and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee don’t seem to have gotten the memo. While they’ve gone out of their way to berate the cost of the health care bill, Hatch and his compatriots make an exception for a failed program that has amounted to an ideological prescription. “My first choice would be to not have the federal government involved in any way in these types of education programs,” Hatch admitted in a press statement today. “However, if the federal government is going to spend money on educating people about sexual decisions, the absence of an abstinence only education program has negative health consequences for our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.” In other words, if the federal government is going to go there, we might as well pile on.

On the upside, a Baucus amendment supporting a more comprehensive approach to sex education passed, 14 to 9, immediately after the Hatch amendment vote. The amendment will provide funding to a wide range of teen wellness programs, including those dealing with contraception and HIV/AIDS. And, notably, it will support abstinence education programs that are deemed “medically accurate and complete,” as The Washington Independent reports. The amendment is a step in the right direction--but it doesn’t make up for the fact that scientific evidence and the health of young people has lost, once more, to the distortions of conservative ideology. It’s just another reminder of how Obama’s Democratic majority can still come up short in the Senate.