Early this year, Congress will work to renew welfare reform by reauthorizing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. As part of this process, Congress will also seek to reauthorize the Title V abstinence education program that was created, along with TANF, in the original 1996 welfare reform act, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). It is expected that advocates of "safe sex" programs will use the welfare reform debate as an opportunity to push for additional federal funding for comprehensive sex education and contraception promotion programs in the name of reducing the occurrence of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
In fact, programs promoting contraceptive use already receive very large amounts of government funding. In 2002, the federal and state governments spent an estimated $1.73 billion on a wide variety of contraception promotion and pregnancy prevention programs.
By contrast, programs teaching teens to abstain from sexual activity received only an estimated $144.1 million in the same year. Overall, government spent $12 to promote contraception for every dollar spent to encourage abstinence. In addition, most contraceptive promotion or comprehensive sex-ed curricula contain material that is alarming and offensive to most parents.
This funding asymmetry seems out of line with general social priorities. Early sexual activity has harmful effects on the health, psychological well-being, and long-term life prospects of teens, and these harmful effects will be reduced only slightly by contraceptive use.
Regrettably, relatively few teens receive a clear message about the harmful effects of early sexual activity; few are taught that society expects teens to delay sexual activity. Instead, most safe sex/comprehensive sex-ed programs send the clear, if implicit, message that society expects and condones teen sexual activity. The main message is that it's okay for teens to have sex as long as they use condoms.
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