Abstinence-Only Sex Education Programs ‘Threaten’ Health of Young People, Report SaysAbstinence-only sex education programs are "threatening" the health of young people by excluding information on condom use and other methods of preventing HIV transmission, according to a report released yesterday by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. The report, titled "Ignorance Only: HIV/AIDS, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs in the United States," analyzes several abstinence-only programs and ad campaigns in Texas (HRW release, 9/18). Texas was selected as the case study for the report because a "substantial share" of federal funding for abstinence-only programs is allocated to the state and because Texas has "actively promoted abstinence-only programs statewide." Researchers interviewed the staff members of several Texas abstinence-only programs, teachers, counselors, school administrators, students, state and federal health and education officials and representatives of several nongovernmental groups. The report states that HIV/AIDS educators from public health departments in Texas said that they are "limited in their capacity to provide complete HIV/AIDS prevention education in schools with federally funded abstinence-only education programs." Teachers working in school districts that have adopted abstinence-only curricula say that they are "restricted" regarding the type of information they can provide about condoms, and some teachers say that they "do not discuss condom use at all" in class. The report says that some abstinence-only programs teach students that "condoms are ineffective in preventing HIV transmission" or assert that condoms "don't work" (Human Rights Watch, "Ignorance Only: HIV/AIDS, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs in the United States," September 2002). An NIH report released in July 2001 said that there is "insufficient evidence" that male latex condoms prevent transmission of "most" STDs other than HIV and gonorrhea (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 7/20/01).
The Human Rights Watch report concludes that federally funded abstinence-only programs "potentially harm all youth by suppressing important HIV prevention information." The report suggests that the federal government strike funding for abstinence-only programs and instead provide support for comprehensive sex education programs that include information about condom use and other methods of HIV/AIDS prevention. In addition, the report says that HHS should amend abstinence-only education guidelines to require that abstinence programs include "complete and accurate information" about HIV prevention, including condom use. In addition, the CDC and HHS should direct more resources toward HIV prevention campaigns that target young people, the report states. The report also recommends that state governments repeal any state legislation mandating abstinence-only education and replace it with laws that support comprehensive sex education in schools. States must ensure that educators and other local officials are not allowed to "restrict important information about HIV/AIDS prevention," including condom use, the report says. School districts should provide "age-appropriate" sex education information to students that includes material on HIV prevention and condom use, and school teachers, nurses, guidance counselors and social workers should be trained to provide "complete and accurate" HIV prevention information, the report states ("Ignorance Only: HIV/AIDS, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs in the United States," September 2002). The report is available online.