Timeline of Abstinence-Only Education in U.S. Classrooms

A Brief Look at How Over $1.5 Billion in Federal Funds Have Been Spent on 26 Years of Censorship in Schools

1981   Congress passed the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), Title XX of the Public Health Service Act, also known as “the chastity law.” The program was designed to encourage adolescents to postpone sexual activity until marriage, emphasizing “chastity” and “self-discipline,” as well as provide support for pregnant or parenting teens and their families.  Another goal of the AFLA was to promote adoption as the preferred option of teenage pregnancy. The program has received over $125 million tax dollars to date, including $29.8 million in the 2008 fiscal year.  

1988  A lawsuit by the ACLU, Bowen v. Kendrick, challenging the AFLA on Establishment Clause grounds reached the Supreme Court. A district court had held in 1985 that the AFLA was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court reversed that decision and found that on its face the statute did not violate separation of church and state principles. However, the Court remanded the case to the lower court to determine whether the statute might be unconstitutional in its application. In 1993, an out-of-court settlement stipulated that AFLA programs could not include religious references, use churches as venues or be presented at parochial schools during school hours.  Programs also had to be medically accurate and respect the “principle of self-determination” regarding contraceptive referral for teenagers.

1996    Title V of the Welfare Reform Act, or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), set up a new system of grants for states providing abstinence-only-until-marriage education that used a specific eight-point criteria, known as the “A-H definition.”

A) has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;

B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;

C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;

D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;

E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;

F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;

G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and

H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

Funding through this program requires that states match every five dollars of federal donations with four dollars of state funds. California was the only state to immediately reject the program.

2000   Congress created a third abstinence-only education program (Title XI, §1110 of the Social Security Act), funded through the maternal and child health block grant’s Special Projects of Regional and National Significance Programs (SPRANS), that bypassed the need for state approval.  Instead, grants were made available directly to community-based (including faith-based) organizations.  This funding scheme was extremely restrictive, requiring that programs target adolescents ages 12 to18, teach all the components of the eight-part definition of abstinence only, and in most cases, refrain from providing young people with information about contraception or safer-sex practices.

Community-based funding has also supported “crisis pregnancy centers,” which women’s groups have charged with providing misinformation to deter women from obtaining abortions.

2004   A report by the office of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), former chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, found that two-thirds of the abstinence-only education curricula studied contained incorrect scientific information regarding condom failure, sexually transmitted diseases, the health consequences of abortions, and mental health. Much of this information directly contradicted the scientific findings of government agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, the report noted that these curricula relied on stereotypes of gender roles and sexuality, and religious notions of conception. A poll conducted jointly by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government found that only seven percent of the parents surveyed for the study supported abstinence-only education. 

2005  SPRANS–CBAE was moved from under the administration of the Health and Human Services (HHS) into the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and became known simply as Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE).

2006    Funding totaled $176 million for AFLA, CBAE, and Title V state grants for the 2006 fiscal year, the highest yet. In January, the CBAE released a new 11-page program outline for grantees, with a new emphasis on conservative family values, focusing on the supposed psychological and social “gains” of marriage and the importance of responsible parenthood, “especially fatherhood.” The new provisions include an extension of funding toward programs targeting unmarried individuals up to age 29.

“Material must not encourage the use of any type of contraceptive outside of marriage or refer to abstinence as a form of contraception.”

“[Material] Teaches how to avoid settings that involve possible interaction with pornography, (e.g. explicit movies, TV, magazines, Internet).”

Federal guidelines for abstinence-only education broadened abstinence-only from abstaining from sexual intercourse to “sexual activity” – which “refers to any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons, including, but not limited to sexual intercourse.”  Thus, educators were further restricted in what they could teach. 

In that same year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report noting that the Department of Health and Human Services had limited knowledge of the scientific accuracy of abstinence-only education in large part because the federal agency that funded the program did not review the education materials provided by grantees. 

Additionally, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2006 attributed 77 percent of the decrease of teenage pregnancy rates to increased contraception use and only 15 percent to a decline in sexual activity.

2007  By this year, nearly half of all states had decided against applying for state-based abstinence-only education due to both its restrictions and the requirement that states contribute matching funds.  These states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.      

2009   President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget eliminates most federal funding for abstinence-only sex-education programs, replacing it with funding for programs that have been proven effective through "rigorous evaluation," to delay sexual activity, increase contraceptive use (without increasing sexual activity) or to reduce teen pregnancy.  These programs will permit discussion of birth control, and an official from the administration has been reported to have said that abstinence-only education programs will have a hard time meeting this criteria.