UPDATE, April 19, 2018: This story has been updated with the Department of Health and Human Services’ response.
A federal judge ruled today that the Trump administration unlawfully axed the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and must restore funding.
Begun under the Obama administration, the program provided more than $100 million a year to 81 groups and institutions serving about 1.2 million teens.
In July, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reported that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services abruptly ended the program two years earlier than previously authorized under federal contracts. The defunding shocked grant holders, which include the Chicago Department of Public Health, University of Southern California and Johns Hopkins University.
U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson issued a summary judgment in favor of four grant holders that had filed suit.
“Further ordered that HHS’s decision to shorten the project period for Plaintiffs’ projects is vacated and that HHS shall accept and process Plaintiffs’ applications as if it had not terminated” the funding, according to the judge’s ruling. The order is effective April 26.
The only programs directly affected by the decision are the four operated by the plaintiffs: the Policy & Research Group LLC, a New Orleans and Seattle consulting group; Project Vida Health Center in El Paso, Texas; Sexual Health Initiatives for Teens in North Carolina; and the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, represented by the nonprofit Public Citizen Litigation Group.
However, the lawsuit is one of four filed earlier this year claiming that the grants were terminated illegally. Kings County in Washington filed on behalf of its program, and three Planned Parenthood groups also sued. In March, the City of Baltimore joined a separate suit by the nonprofit Healthy Teen Network.
The loss of $213 million over two years stranded educators and students and disrupted ongoing research to scientifically validate which programs were effective in reducing teen pregnancy.
“The court’s decision today is a rebuke of the Trump administration’s effort to kill a program that is working effectively to lower teen pregnancy rates,” Sean Sherman, an attorney at the Public Citizen Litigation Group, said in a statement. “Because of the court’s ruling, the four grantees will be able to continue to serve their local communities and to conduct important research.”
Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said, “We are considering our next steps.”
“We are disappointed with today’s ruling,” she said. “As numerous studies have shown, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program is not working. Continuing the program in its current state does a disservice to the youth it serves and to the taxpayers who fund it. Communities deserve better.”
According to the department’s website, an analysis of 41 of the funded programs found that “73% either had no impact or had a negative impact on teen behavior, with some teens more likely to begin having sex, to engage in unprotected sex, or to become pregnant. Very few positive results were sustained over time.”
However, peer-reviewed studies over the past decade have shown that access to medically accurate information on contraception is the most important factor in avoiding teen pregnancy.
The court decision may be a blow to high-ranking Trump appointee Valerie Huber, who has been an outspoken advocate of abstinence-only sex education programs, which do not incorporate information on sexuality and reproductive health services.
Huber, former president and CEO of Ascend, formerly the National Abstinence Education Association, joined the Department of Health and Human Services in June as chief of staff for the then-unnamed assistant secretary for health. A month later, the letters terminating the teen program were sent.
Educators and health researchers worry that teen pregnancies, which have been cut in half in the U.S. over the past 10 years, could increase again. Nearly 230,000 babies were born to U.S. teens in 2015.