Multnomah County v. Azar

Multnomah County filed a lawsuit against the federal government alleging it has flouted congressional mandates and politicized Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program grants.

The suit was filed by the nonprofit legal organization Democracy Forward and Pacifica Law Group in U.S. District Court in Portland, after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services violated congressional requirements that they only fund programs that have been proven effective. Instead, the new criteria privilege an abstinence-only approach that is contrary to Oregon law.

When Congress created the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program in 2009, it specifically adopted an evidence-based approach, rooted in science, directing that the grants only support programs proven effective in preventing teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and other sexual risk behaviors.

Multnomah County was awarded one of five-year grants in 2015 and used $1.25 million per year to educate 15,000 teens, train 107 teachers, and engaged 329 parents and caregivers in 32 middle and high schools across the county.

Last year, with no explanation, Health and Human Services terminated Multnomah County’s grant and the grants of all other 80 grantees after three years of the five-year grants. Federal judges in five cases have since held those terminations unlawful, including, most recently, a ruling in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of grantees who, like Multnomah County, had not previously sued. Because of those losses, Health and Human Services must process applications for continued funding for all terminated grantees. The federal government has not said whether it will appeal any of the rulings.

Multnomah County’s 2015 grant was administered by the Health Department’s Adolescent Sexual Health Equity program in partnership with Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, Latino Network, Self Enhancement Inc, the Native Youth and Family Center, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland. They came together to address sexual health among Black, Latinx and Native American teens, whose birth rates are higher than their non-Hispanic White peers.

Community partners work with students and their parents in five school districts to teach about healthy relationships and safe sex. While students learn about healthy relationships, so do their parents, who attend group meetings led by nonprofit partners including Latino Network.

But for Multnomah County to be competitive for the next round of grants, staff at the county’s Adolescent Sexual Health Equity program must meet the new criteria to prioritize abstinence-only education. That would also push Multnomah County outside the bounds of Oregon law, which requires students be taught abstinence education, “but not to the exclusion of other material and instruction on contraceptive and disease reduction measures,” and requires programs to “enhance students’ understanding of sexuality as a normal human development.”

In the Trump administration’s new plan, any program that normalizes sexual activity outside of marriage will be at a significant disadvantage in competing for grant money.

The suit is being filed on Multnomah County’s behalf by Pacifica Law Group, based in Seattle, and Democracy Forward, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit legal organization that won challenges against the administration for stripping Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program funding from King County, Washington, the City of Baltimore, Maryland, and the Healthy Teen Network.

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