ACLU Letter to the House of Representatives Urging Opposition to Extending the Federal Refusal Clause and Appropriation of Money for Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage Programs

Document Date: June 15, 2005

Oppose Extension of the Federal Refusal Clause and Appropriation of Funds for Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage Programs During the House Appropriations Committee’s Consideration of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Spending Bill

Dear Representative:

As you consider appropriations for Fiscal Year 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union urges you not to extend the federal refusal clause language, also known as the Weldon Amendment, and to oppose appropriation of any new money for abstinence-only-until marriage education programs.

Oppose Extension of the Federal Refusal Clause

The federal refusal clause, also known as the Weldon Amendment, would allow virtually any health care entity to refuse to provide, cover, pay for, or even refer patients for abortions even when such actions are otherwise legally mandated.

Laws requiring the provision of abortion services tend to apply only in extreme circumstances, such as when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or when a woman’s life or health is threatened by a pregnancy. The Weldon Amendment would allow health insurance companies, health plans, hospitals, providers, and others to ignore these laws with impunity. This broad federal refusal clause therefore endangers women’s lives and undermines women’s ability to make their own health care decisions during pregnancy.

Supporters of the federal refusal clause wrongly argue that it is needed to protect individuals and health care organizations that oppose abortion. The reality is that no federal law forces individuals to provide abortion care. In fact, the 1973 Church amendment explicitly protects individuals who object to providing abortion care based on religious beliefs or moral convictions. No federal law requires hospitals to provide abortions either, except in a medical emergency. Moreover, upwards of 45 states have refusal clauses for either individuals or institutions that object to providing or participating in abortions.

The federal refusal clause seeks to permit health care entities to refuse to provide abortion services or referrals for any reason, not just on the basis of religious objections. However, the vast majority of Americans oppose allowing institutional health care providers to deny services to patients even on the basis of moral or religious objections. For example, seventy-six percent of the public opposes exempting hospitals from providing medical services to which they object on religious grounds and eighty-nine percent oppose allowing insurance companies to refuse to pay for medical services on religious grounds.

Although the true impact of the federal refusal clause is unclear, its proponents want it to be defined broadly. If their view prevails, the provision will present a direct and serious threat to women’s reproductive health.

Oppose Appropriation of Any New Money for Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage Programs

Despite statistics that demonstrate a high level of sexual activity among U.S. teens, Congress has allocated well over half a billion dollars since 1997 for educational programs that focus exclusively on abstinence and censor other information that can help young people make responsible, healthy, and safe decisions about sexual activity. In recent years, federal lawmakers have steadily increased federal funding for abstinence-only-until marriage programs to more than $165 million annually. In last week’s subcommittee meeting, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs received an increase of $11 million dollars. In sharp contrast, no federal funds are dedicated to supporting comprehensive sexual education programs that teach both abstinence and contraceptive use.

While the discussion of abstinence is an important component of any educational program about human sexuality, federally funded programs that focus exclusively on abstinence raise serious health and civil liberties concerns.

Statistics reveal that teens need information about contraception and sexual health: nearly two-thirds of all high school seniors in the U.S. have had sexual intercourse; approximately 822,000 pregnancies occurred among 15-19 year old women in 2000; and each year, approximately 9.1 million 15-24 year olds are infected with sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence-only education grantees, however, are censored in the information they can provide to students. To receive funds, grantees must offer programs with the “”exclusive purpose”” of teaching the benefits of abstinence programs, and may not provide a participating adolescent with any information that is inconsistent with the narrow eight-point definition of abstinence-only education. Consequently, recipients of abstinence-only dollars may not advocate contraceptive use or teach contraceptive methods — even if a teen directly asks for this information — except to emphasize their failure rates. These programs thus leave teens without information critical to protecting their health and preventing pregnancy.

Worse still, federally funded abstinence-only programs can actually leave teens with inaccurate information. A recent study conducted by the United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform found that eleven of the thirteen abstinence-only curricula used by SPRANS programs “”contain major errors and distortions about public health information,”” including HIV and other STD prevention, pregnancy prevention, and condom effectiveness. Another recent study, conducted by Case Western University, found that abstinence-only programs contain patently false information about contraceptive effectiveness rates, “”inflated statistics”” regarding abortion, and “”false and inaccurate information”” about STD transmission.

Finally, in violation of First Amendment guarantees, many federally funded abstinence-only programs contain religious teachings about proper sexual behavior and values. Although federal funding guidelines do not permit abstinence-only grantees to convey overt religious messages or to impose religious viewpoints, in practice, many of these programs do precisely that. For example, the ACLU recently filed a federal suit, ACLU v. Leavitt, challenging, on First Amendment establishment clause grounds, the use of federal dollars to support an overtly religious abstinence-only program called The Silver Ring Thing. The Silver Ring Thing has been awarded more than one million dollars in federal money over the last three years. During the “Silver Ring Thing’s” flagship three-hour program, members testify about how accepting Jesus Christ improved their lives, quote Bible passages, and urge audience members to ask the Lord Jesus Christ to come into their lives. In addition, the official silver ring of the program is inscribed with a reference to the biblical verse “1 Thess. 4:3-4,” which reads “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honor.” Such programs violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation between church and state by using taxpayer money to endorse religious beliefs and underwrite religious activities.

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The ACLU urges you to oppose the extension of the federal refusal clause and to oppose appropriation of any new money for abstinence-only-until marriage education programs.


Gregory T. Nojeim
Acting Director