Deep within the current debate over health care reform, the longstanding controversy between comprehensive sex education and abstinence education continues. The Senate health care bill allocates $75 million a year for comprehensive sexuality education programs and $50 million a year for abstinence education, which was zeroed out in President Obama’s 2010 budget. Earlier this fall, Senator Hatch (R-UT) was successful in amending the Baucus health care bill to reinstate Title V abstinence education funding.

According to Valerie Huber, Executive Director of the National Abstinence Education Association, “The recent CDC statistics detailing epidemic levels of STDs calls for a strong primary prevention message–a strategy only found within abstinence education.” Teen pregnancy rates are on the rise for the first time in nearly a decade and a half. Besides the obvious benefits of avoiding sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, and single parenthood, youth who remain abstinent report higher levels of academic achievement and lower depression rates. Furthermore, they are also less likely to use alcohol.

Several studies also show that abstinence education has significantly helped teens delay sexual activity and decrease their likelihood of participating in risky sexual behavior. A concrete example of this is the Best Friends program, which uses a variety of methods to help girls remain abstinent and avoid other unsafe practices. A 2005 evaluation of middle school girls that participated in Best Friends revealed that these young women were significantly less likely to engage in sexual activity than were their peers. These results, observed in a high-risk population, suggest that it is possible for even the most vulnerable youth to choose abstinence and avoid one of the greatest factors contributing to poverty: single motherhood.

As is the case with the funding in the current health care bill, the government has consistently outspent abstinence education programs with comprehensive sexuality programs. In fiscal year 2008, the ratio was $4 for every $1. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many low-income young adults who have borne a child out of wedlock report that it is not due to a lack of access to birth control. Youth do not need more lessons on contraception.

Teens, especially those who have been the most exposed to family breakdown in their communities, should be taught that abstinence will help them avoid poverty and achieve successful future relationships. Young people need adults in their lives who will support them in these goals. Policy sends a message—will it be one that encourages abstinence or “safe” sex?