Federal Abstinence Only Until Marriage Policy

Brief History of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Policy

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have been funded with federal dollars for over two decades and yet there is still no peer-reviewed research proving that it is effective.

AFLA: The Birthplace of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

The U.S. Office of Population Affairs began administering the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) in 1981. This program was designed to prevent teen pregnancy by promoting chastity and self-discipline. [1]

AFLA’s early programs taught abstinence as the only option for teens and often promoted specific religious values. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit in 1983 charging that AFLA violated the separation of church and state as defined in the U.S. Constitution. In 1985, a U.S. district judge found AFLA unconstitutional. On appeal in 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision and remanded the case to a lower court. [2]

Finally, an out-of-court settlement in 1993 stipulated that AFLA-funded sexuality education programs must:

  1. not include religious references;

  2. be medically accurate;

  3. respect the “principle of self-determination” regarding contraceptive referral for teenagers; and

  4. not allow grantees to use church sanctuaries for their programs or to give presentations in parochial schools during school hours. [3]

Within these limitations, AFLA continues to fund abstinence-only-until-marriage programs today.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage education as defined in AFLA has been taught for over two decades and yet there is still no peer-reviewed research that proves it is effective in changing adolescents’ behavior. To the contrary, a meta-evaluation of AFLA program evaluations found them “barely adequate” to “completely inadequate. [ [4]

Congress Institutes Similar Programs through Doolittle Amendment

The first Congressional attempt to censor sexuality education using an abstinence-only-until-marriage provision came in 1994 during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Representative John Doolittle (R-CA) introduced an amendment to limit the content of HIV-prevention and sexuality education in school-based programs.

Fortunately, four federal statutes required alterations to the Doolittle amendment. The Department of Education Organization Act (Section 103a), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Section 14512), Goals 2000 (Section 319 (b)), and the General Education Provisions Act (Section 438) all prohibited the federal government from prescribing state and local school curriculum standards.

Proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs learned from this that even though they could not legally restrict state and local education programs, they could restrict and define the scope of state and local health policy and funding. They applied their newfound lesson in 1996.

Federal Entitlement Program Promotes Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage

In 1996, the federal government attached a provision to the popular welfare reform law establishing a federal entitlement program for abstinence-only-until-marriage.

This entitlement program, Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, funneled $50 million per year for five years into the states. States that choose to accept Section 510(b) funds are required to match every four federal dollars with three state-raised dollars and then disperse the funds for educational activities. [5]

Programs that use the funds are required to adhere to a strict eight-point definition, which, among other things, requires them to teach that “sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects. [6]

Other Federal Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Legislation

Since 1996, total funding for unproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs has topped half a billion dollars. In November 1999, proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage secured more funding through the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance—Community Based Abstinence Education (SPRANS-CBAE) program. In Fiscal year 2003, funding for SPRANS is $55 million.

These SPRANS-CBAE funds are awarded directly to state and local organizations by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau through a competitive grant process instead of through state block grants as is the case for 510(b) funds. Many viewed this decision as an attempt by conservative lawmakers to control the funding and prevent money from supporting media campaigns, youth development, and after-school programs that they saw as diluting the abstinence message. [7]

1) R. Saul, “Whatever Happened to the Adolescent Family Life Act?,” Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, vol. 1, no. 2, April 1998.
2) Ibid.
3) D. Daley, “Exclusive Purpose: Abstinence-Only Proponents Create Entitlement in Welfare Reform,” SIECUS Report, April/May 1997.
4) C. Bartels, et al., Adolescent Abstinence Promotion Programs: An Evaluation of Evaluations. (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association, Nov. 18, 1996, New York, NY.)
5) D. Daley, “Exclusive Purpose: Abstinence-Only Proponents Create Entitlement in Welfare Reform,” SIECUS Report, April/May 1997.
6) Section 510, Title V of the Social Security Act (Public Law 104-193).
7) Ibid.

top of page

8-point Definition

The term “abstinence education” means an educational or motivational program which:

a. has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, physiological, 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 human 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.

top of page


Funding Graph

 Federal Spending for Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs (1982-2004)

*TANF includes $50 million in Federal funds and $37.5 million in State matching funds.

** In addition to the $117 million approved for the three traditional funding streams, $3.75 million was earmarked for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This includes $3.15 million for 30 programs in Pennsylvania. Additional earmarks include: $100,000 for Project Reality and $250,000 for Best Friends in Washington, DC, and $250,000 for the Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MISH) in Austin, TX.

top of page