Abstinence Activists, Appointed By Trump, Killed an HHS Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program

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Abstinence Activists, Appointed By Trump, Killed an HHS Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program

This dispiriting piece of news was easy to miss in the chaos of last week, but it’s worth highlighting—NBC News reports that when a Department of Health and Human Services program designed to prevent unplanned teen pregnancies was cancelled in 2017, it was the behest of three Trump appointees with a history of fervent pro-abstinence activism.

Valerie Huber, chief of staff for the Assistant Secretary of Health, was one of them:

Prior to serving at HHS, Huber was the president of Ascend, an association that promotes abstinence until marriage as the best way to prevent teen pregnancy.

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program used $213 million in funding (and support from both parties in Congress) to establish more than 3,000 community organizations. It began in 2010, and had trained 7,000 health professionals for the specific task of help teens avoid unwanted pregnancies.

The sudden cancellation came against the wishes of longtime HHS employees:

In the notes provided to NBC News, Evelyn Kappeler, who for eight years has led the Office of Adolescent Health, which administers the program, repeatedly expressed concerns about terminating the program, but appeared out of the decision-making loop and at one point was driven to tears.

In a July 17, 2017 note, she says she was admonished to “get in line” and told it was not her place to ask questions about the agency’s use of funds. In a July 28 note, Kappeler recalled she was “frustrated about the time this process is taking and the fact that (her staff) has not been part of the discussions.” She described being “so rattled” that “my reaction when I got on (sic) the phone was to cry.”

The big hook here, though, is that it might be illegal. The White House was sued by the nonprofit law firm Democracy Forward last month for unlawful termination of the program. They say the emails that came out recently violate something called the “Administrative Procedure Act,” which is designed to protect against arbitrary decisions:

“Now that we’ve seen these documents, there is no question to us why the Trump administration withheld” the emails, said Skye Perryman, the group’s lawyer. The decision to end the program “was made hastily, without a record of any reasoned decision making and under the influence of political appointees who have long opposed evidenced-based policy,” she said.

HHS spokesman Mark Vafiades is attempting to spin the cancellation as stemming from its overall ineffectiveness. This is the latest example of Trump appointees who seem hellbent on reducing or eliminating legal provisions and programs designed to promote women’s health and rights—including the attempts by Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood and the rollback of a contraceptive care coverage mandate in effect under the ACA.

Eighty-one previous grantees from the HHS program will lose their funding starting this June.