Trump administration defies court order by pushing abstinence, Democrats say

Instead of supporting teen pregnancy programs based on evidence, the administration is substituting ideology, according to congressional Democrats.
Image: White House Sports and Fitness Day
President Donald Trump, from right, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar arrive to attend the White House Sports and Fitness Day at the South Lawn of the White House on May 30, 2018.Michael Reynolds / EPA file

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By Heidi Przybyla

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration may be violating federal court orders that found it had unlawfully canceled a federal program to prevent teen pregnancies and shifted that funding to efforts focused primarily on abstinence, Senate Democrats said in a new letter obtained by NBC News.

In the letter, sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Wednesday, the Democrats said they're concerned the administration may be violating the court order by using a third-party government contractor to direct federal funds toward abstinence programs.

"By attempting to direct funding in accordance with ideological goals, rather than towards the development of evidence-based practices, the Trump-Pence Administration is undoing years of progress towards supporting adolescent sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing," the letter, signed by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said.

Earlier this year, federal courts ruled five times against the administration's termination of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, an annual $101 million effort created under the Obama administration with bipartisan support in Congress to help teenagers avoid unwanted pregnancies. Later, courts in New York and Oregon found that redirecting the funds to abstinence programs that are not "proven effective through rigorous evaluation" is "unlawful."

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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., responds to a reporter's question on Capitol Hill on Oct. 3, 2018 in Washington.Alex Brandon / AP file

According to a government contracting website, shortly after the court rulings, HHS awarded $21.5 million to the MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit that performs federally funded research, for a "Teen Pregnancy Prevention Study." Details have not been made available to Congress, yet in recent years, MITRE has done a significant amount of work for HHS studying “sexual risk avoidance education,” or abstinence-focused research.

“I am deeply concerned what the administration is doing is going in an ideological direction and they’re contracting out money contrary to the actual mission of the program and contrary to what the courts are doing,” Murray told NBC News in an interview.

Murray organized the letter to Azar in the Senate, while Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., organized a similar House letter.

An HHS spokesperson confirmed the Mitre contract funding comes directly from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. When asked if the focus was abstinence studies, the official said it is being spent on “medically accurate and age appropriate programs that reduce teen pregnancy."

Many medical professionals credit the Obama-era program with helping to bring down the nation’s teen pregnancy rate to an all-time low.

A teenager has birth control options explained to her by social worker Cindy Covell at the Children's Hospital Colorado's Colorado Adolescent Maternity Program in Denver in Aug. 2014.Marc Piscotty / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

HHS terminated the TPPP last year, giving differing explanations about why, including that it was ineffective and didn’t conform to President Donald Trump's proposed budget. Trump officials released a fact sheet saying the program had little impact on teen behavior, with some teens more likely to begin having sex or engage in unprotected sex, but did not provide scientific evidence to support this. “Given the strong evidence of negative impact or no impact for these programs, continuing the TPPP Program in its current state is not a reasonable option,” the fact sheet said.

After the program's 2010 inception, teen pregnancy and birth rates fell faster than ever, and health professionals, including the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, expressed alarm at its cancellation. They also warned that considerable research and money already invested in the program would be wasted if the program were to be terminated, and the number of at-risk teens would increase.

The program's cancellation was directed by political appointees over the objections of career experts at the agency, NBC News reported in March based on internal notes and emails.

Critics say the administration’s opposition to the TPPP is part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to target programs intended to improve women’s reproductive health. This includes attempting to roll back a federal contraceptive coverage provision allowing women to avoid out-of-pocket costs for birth control and the targeting of the Title X family planning program, which has a disproportionate impact on low-income women.