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Time for REAL Solutions

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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March 20, 2009

Most people think of March 17 as a time to drink green beer and listen to bagpipes. Inside the Beltway, we think of March 17 as the day of the Irish Prime Minister’s annual meeting with the President and address to Congress. But, this year, we celebrated something besides St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. This past Tuesday, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) re-introduced the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act (S.611/HR 1551), a bill designed to create the first ever federal funding stream to provide age-appropriate, medically-accurate, comprehensive sexuality education.

Advocates who were trying to attend the REAL news conference had to run from one door of the U.S. Capitol to another because the heightened security, due to the Irish Prime Minister’s visit, meant that certain passageways were closed. It took us a little longer to get there, but our difficulty accessing the event did not dampen the spirit in the room or the turn out.

Sen. Lautenberg and Rep. Lee, against a backdrop of advocates and students, addressed a standing-room-only crowd. Rep. Lee punnily emphasized the importance of “being for REAL about sex ed.” A few minutes later, Sen. Lautenberg stressed the morality — yes, I said morality — of giving teens REAL facts that they can use to keep themselves healthy, make responsible decisions about whether to have sex, and protect themselves when they do choose to become sexually active.

Both members of Congress also noted that at least 22 states, including their own home states, have rejected Title V abstinence-only funding as a bad investment. As Sen. Lautenberg put it, “Many places said, ‘Keep your money; we want to keep our teens safe.'” At the same time, Rep. Lee pointed out that by turning down Title V dollars, states were losing a source of much-needed federal funds. Now you know a program is doing more harm than good when states are turning down money during an economic crisis.

The REAL Act couldn’t come at a more important time. Yesterday, the front page of the Washington Post reported that the teenage birthrate has increased for the second consecutive year.

This news has the abstinence-only proponents quaking in their shoes. In a news release, the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) cautioned that this is not the time to end abstinence-only programs. They even tried to blame comprehensive sex ed for the rise in teen birthrates.

So what’s wrong with their blame game?

While there are three federal funding streams for abstinence-only programs, there is no designated federal funding stream for comprehensive sex ed. So, NAEA is actually trying to blame the rise in teen birthrate on a federal program that doesn’t exist. As Senator Lautenberg pointed out at the press conference, we’ve tried abstinence-only for over 12 years, and the science is clear that it has not worked. It’s time to try something else.

The Washington Post article quoted White House spokesman Reid H. Cherlin, who said, “President Obama is committed to reducing the number of unintended pregnancies in this country, and we are reviewing these programs as part of the budget process. The president has supported abstinence programs if they are part of a comprehensive, age-appropriate and evidence-based effort to reduce teenage pregnancy” [emphasis added]. Well, that’s music to our ears. If our President is serious, then there’s no question that he should zero-out abstinence-only-until marriage funding in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. Go to our Action Center and encourage President Obama to make good on his words. And in the meantime, Congress should use this opportunity to pass the REAL Act.