Caroline Polisi on Bristol Palin and Obama proposa

(WOMENSENEWS)–When The Candie’s Foundation appointed Bristol Palin as its new teen ambassador in May, political pundits and women’s rights advocates alike were confused.

Yes, Bristol, daughter of former Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin has the celebrity voltage to fire up a fund-raiser, but Candie’s, after all, is dedicated to preventing teen pregnancy through the promotion of abstinence education. And Bristol was 17 when she made her very public debut as an expectant mother at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

At the time, the Palin camp emphasized that Bristol and the expectant father, Levi Johnston, were planning to marry in the not-so-distant future.

But since the birth of Tripp Johnston in December, the couple has split, and Bristol has rebranded her image. No longer the dewy bride-to-be, now she’s the "do as I say, not as I do" voice of caution.

"Regardless of what I did . . . I think that abstinence is the only 100-percent fool proof way of preventing teen pregnancy," Bristol said in a recent interview on NBC. She insists her previous remark in a Fox News interview with Greta Van Susteren–that abstinence is "not realistic"–was taken out of context.

The young mother’s comments–and her mixed message–could not be more timely.

Steep Rate for Teen Pregnancy

This year in the United States, more than 750,000 teenagers will become pregnant, one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed world.

Meanwhile, the Bushes have ceded the role of first family to the Obamas as national moral arbiters and trend setters.

Amidst the most dramatic political changing of the guard in recent U.S. history, Bristol’s story has re-ignited the debate about sex education. Does abstinence-only education really reduce teen pregnancy rates? And perhaps more important, should tax-payer dollars be used to fund programs that teach abstinence to the exclusion of all other forms of birth control?

Federal funding for abstinence-only education has been available since 1981, but it became increasingly prevalent under the George W. Bush administration.

Between 1996 and 2008, U.S. taxpayers have spent $1.5 billion on such programs, with $160 million allotted for fiscal year 2009, which ends Sept. 30.

Critical Chorus

Groups such as the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union have continually fought such funding, arguing the programs are ideologically–not scientifically–driven, ineffective, culpable of gender stereotyping and often in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause has traditionally been used by courts to prohibit the government from promoting one religion over another, essentially maintaining separation of Church and State.

Under the Bush administration, the ACLU filed two suits against abstinence-only education programs receiving federal funds, citing violation of the Establishment Clause in both.

Clinical groups are also arrayed on the side of more, rather than less, sex ed.

The American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, all support a comprehensive model of sex education for adolescents that includes abstinence and contraception.

Twenty five states currently opt out of funding under the Title V abstinence education program, which has as its "exclusive purpose" teaching that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children.

New Spending Priorities

President Obama’s 2010 budget outline–portions of which were released May 7–would eliminate federal funding for abstinence-only education programs (including Title V funding), redirecting at least $164 million dollars a year to "evidence-based and promising teen pregnancy prevention programs." While no one is sure exactly what "evidence-based" and "promising" programs entail exactly, one thing is for sure–the programs will teach participants about comprehensive contraception and include information on sexually transmitted diseases.

The about-face for federal sex education policy has upset some social conservatives and religious groups.

In a statement to the Baptist Press, Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said her organization is hoping that members of Congress will reject the President’s budget proposals and continue to support abstinence education programs through discretionary funding.

While supporters of abstinence-only education insist that the only realistic way to reduce teen pregnancy rates is to discourage sex in the first place, Bristol Palin’s former fiance takes a different view.

"I don’t just think telling young kids you can’t have sex . . . it’s not realistic, it’s not going to work," Levi Johnston told CBS news recently.

Whose view of the Obama proposal will prevail? That of Bristol or Levi? In a he-she debate it’s always nice to back up your own gender somehow. But in this case I have to side with Levi.

Caroline Johnston Polisi is an attorney in New York City. She contributed to the Center for Reproductive Rights’s Presidential Transition Memo, urging then President-elect Obama to cut federal funding for abstinence-only education. Her research focused on legal challenges to abstinence-only education under the Bush administration.

For more information:

Center for Reproductive Rights

No More Money for Abstinence-Only Until Marriage

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