One of my favorite moments of Rick Perry’s lengthy tenure as the Republican governor of Texas came in 2011, when he hosted an event in which he fielded questions from Texas Tribune chief Evan Smith. Relaying an inquiry from a voter, Smith asked, “Why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs, when they don’t seem to be working?”
Perry listened the question, thought for a second, and replied, “Abstinence works.”
The reporter pressed on, reminding the governor, “But we have the third-highest teen-pregnancy rate among all states in the country. The questioner’s point is, it doesn’t seem to be working.” The governor responded, “It – it works.”
In reality, Texas helped prove that pushing abstinence was spectacularly ineffective as a public policy – a fact Perry simply couldn’t bring himself to understand, data be damned – which is why it’s all the more discouraging to see the policy “make a comeback” now. The Hill reported last week:
In a marked departure from the previous administration, conservatives at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are putting an emphasis on abstinence to reduce teen pregnancy rates.
So far, the administration has encouraged organizations applying for Title X federal family planning funds to include in their programs a “meaningful emphasis” on “the benefits of avoiding sex” when communicating with adolescents and to use programs that don’t “normalize sexual risk behaviors.”
The Trump administration also plans to release its first report early this summer as part of a $10 million research project looking at ways to improve sex education programs, with a focus on the impact of “sexual delay.”
Politico added last week that Valerie Huber, the acting deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at HHS, and a longtime abstinence advocate , “will be the final arbiter of which groups receive federal family planning funds – a change from prior years, when a group of officials made the decision.”
As a matter of public health, all of this is quite discouraging. But there’s also a political element to this that shouldn’t be overlooked: abstinence is “making a comeback” under the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but when it comes to sex-related controversies, there’s a certain awkwardness to the circumstances we find ourselves in. The president, after all, is a thrice-married admitted adulterer. He’s also currently facing a series of difficult questions about why his personal attorney paid $130,000 in hush money to a porn star who alleges a sexual relationship with Trump that started during his current marriage.
It’s bad enough that the Trump administration has the wrong message, but could this president be a worse messenger?