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GOP Guts Teen Pregnancy Prevention

By / 7.20.2012

If U.S. conservatives have made any useful contribution to anti-poverty policy, it’s driving home this crucial point: family structure matters. The whole vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty usually begins with teen pregnancy and unwed births.

Yet House Republicans this week proposed to gut federal programs that aim at reducing teen pregnancies. How do conservatives square their antipathy to such programs with their understanding of the risks and disadvantages of growing up in poor families headed by unmarried mothers?

You might think the answer is obvious: Mistrustful of government in general, Republicans don’t believe it knows how to do anything as complicated as promoting responsible sexual behavior.  Ok, but the same Republicans who called for cutting spending on prevention programs also voted to boost spending on federal abstinence programs.

So let me get this straight: Republicans believe that Washington is hopelessly incompetent when it comes to encouraging young girls to take every precaution against an unwanted pregnancy, but masterful in persuading them not to have sex at all. There’s little evidence to support this view, but in the GOP of Norquist and Bachmann, facts are no match for dogma.

Here’s what happened: On Wednesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee voted out a bill that slashed funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) from $105 to $20 million in FY 2013. At the same time, it increased spending on abstinence-only programs from $5 to $20 million. This is political catnip to social conservatives, who believe government’s only legitimate role is to encourage kids to “just say no” to sex.

According to the authoritative National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the TPPP programs are strictly evidence-based. Prevention programs that don’t produce measurable changes in teen’s behavior don’t get funded. In contrast, subcommittee Republicans put no such requirements on the new funding for abstinence-only programs.

As it happens, I think abstinence is a good message for teen girls. The Campaign notes that abstinence education is part of some of the TPPP programs that would lose funding if the House gets its way. But it’s hardly foolproof, and it’s not part of many programs that have proven effective in reducing teen pregnancies. These generally offer information, education and counseling to help kids understand why and how to avoid pregnancy (through some mix of delaying sex or using contraception if they are having sex). They don’t actually offer teens contraceptives. Cutting their funding will hardly dent the national debt, but it will lead to higher rates of teen pregnancy.

The subcommittee proposal may go to the full House Appropriations Committee next week. It also eliminates entirely the $294 million Title X Family Planning Program, and, for good measure, bars funding to implement various provisions of the Affordable Care Act (aka, “Obamacare”) including those that help prevent unintended pregnancy.

Fortunately, there’s zero chance that the Senate (which already has passed a bill that keeps TPPP funding intact) will go along with House GOP’s jihad against federal pregnancy prevention efforts. In fact, it’s tempting to dismiss the whole thing as a yet another empty exercise in Tea Party posturing and pressure group pandering.

But this small episode highlights a besetting liability for today’s radicalized Republican Party: an unwillingness to test its ideological or moral preconceptions against actual evidence about how public policies work. This “faith based” approach to policy making – or willful ignorance – will likely be the Tea Party’s downfall.

Photo Credit: robertelyov