Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would reverse course and continue funding grants for groups participating in the Obama administration’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP). During the summer of 2017, the Trump administration faced criticism when it announced it would terminate these grants and redirect the funds to teen-pregnancy programs emphasizing abstinence.
However, in five separate lawsuits, judges have ruled that the administration’s redirection of funding was unlawful. The most recent ruling came this past June, when Judge Kentanji Brown of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of 62 of the grantees. As a result, the administration has decided to reverse last year’s policy change.
The TPPP originated during the Obama administration and awards federal grants to teen-pregnancy prevention programs that emphasize using contraceptives rather than limiting sexual activity. Unsurprisingly, the recent HHS decision to continue funding these programs has been applauded by the Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood, and similar groups. Many commentators have been quick to argue that abstinence-only sex-education programs are ineffective. Unfortunately, the TPPP’s ineffectiveness has received nowhere near the same level of scrutiny.
In 2017, the Office of Adolescent Health published two reports evaluating the results of the TPPP’s grants, analyzing grantees from 2010 to 2014. Of the 38 programs studied, only three reported long-term reductions in the incidence of unprotected sex, and only one program reported a long-term reduction in overall rates of teen sexual activity.
A 2018 analysis conducted by Mathematica evaluated grant recipients through 2016 and found little improvement. Only five of 40 programs showed evidence of reducing teen sexual activity, and four of 40 programs demonstrated success in lowering teen-pregnancy rates. The vast majority of the evaluations found no long-term difference in sexual activity, use of contraception, or pregnancy rates between students enrolling in these programs and students in control groups.
Some proponents of the TPPP have cited overall declines in teen-pregnancy rates as evidence of the program’s success. However, the teen-pregnancy rate in the United States started to decline in the early 1990s, well before the Obama administration started funding the TPPP.
The coverage of the TPPP is a classic example of media bias. Countless media outlets have been quick to criticize the Trump administration’s support for sex-education programs that emphasize abstinence, but the mainstream media have shown almost no interest in analytically rigorous research raising doubts about the effectiveness of Obama-era contraception programs. Indeed, the Trump administration should be praised for its initial efforts to redirect funding to teen-pregnancy prevention programs that have better prospects for success.