Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Programs Present ‘False’ Information on HIV, Other Topics, Report Says
Federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs present "false and misleading information," according to a report released on Wednesday by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the Washington Times reports (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 12/2). Several million children ages nine to 18 have participated in the more than 100 federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs since 1999, when such programs began, the Washington Post reports (Connolly, Washington Post, 12/2). Congress earlier this month approved a $388 billion omnibus spending measure (HR 4818) for fiscal year 2005 that includes about $168 million for abstinence education programs (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 11/29). In FY 2001, about half that amount was allocated for abstinence-only sex education, according to the Times (Washington Times, 12/2).
Waxman's staff reviewed 13 of the most commonly used abstinence-only sex education curricula in the United States and found that 11 of the programs -- which are used by 69 organizations in 25 states -- contain "unproved claims, subjective conclusions or outright falsehoods regarding reproductive health, gender traits and when life begins," the Post reports. According to the report, some of the claims made by the programs include: that a fetus at 43 days gestation is a "thinking person," that a boy or man can impregnate a woman or girl by touching her genitals, that women who undergo abortion are "more prone to suicide," that 10% of women who undergo abortion become sterile, that 50% of gay male teenagers are HIV-positive, that HIV can be spread through sweat and tears and that condoms fail to prevent sexually transmitted diseases 31% of the time when used during heterosexual intercourse, according to the report, the Post reports. According to the report, a 2001 obstetrics textbook says that fertility is not affected by elective abortion. The statement about gay teenagers might be a misinterpretation of CDC data that found that 59% of HIV-positive boys ages 13 to 19 contracted the virus through unprotected sex with a male, according to the Post. In addition, condoms, when used properly, are more than 97% effective in preventing pregnancy and STDs, including HIV, according to federal research, the Post reports.
Waxman, a proponent of comprehensive sex education, said that abstinence-only programs make students unprepared to protect against pregnancy or STDs if they become sexually active, the Post reports. "I have no objection talking about abstinence as a surefire way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases," Waxman said, adding, "I don't think we ought to lie to our children about science. Something is seriously wrong when federal tax dollars are being used to mislead kids about basic health facts." Bill Smith, vice president of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, called for closer monitoring of "shame-based, fear-based, medically inaccurate messages" that are promoted in abstinence-only programs (Washington Post, 12/2). Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said, "Rep. Waxman's study proves what other research has already revealed -- that abstinence-only programs are ineffective and harmful to young people" (PPFA release, 12/1). Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said, "For years, lawmakers have increased spending on abstinence-only programs without clear evidence that they are effective at preventing unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections, including HIV." She added that the report "demonstrates that public money is being misspent at the expense of our children's health. It should serve as a serious wake-up call to lawmakers" (ACLU release, 12/1).
However, Dr. Alma Golden, deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at HHS, said that Waxman's report took statements in the abstinence-only programs "out of context" to show them in the "worst possible light," according to the AP/Las Vegas Sun. "These issues have been raised before and discredited," Golden said, adding, "One thing is very clear for our children, abstaining from sex is the most effective means of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, STDs and preventing pregnancy" (Sherman, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 12/1). Libby Gray, director of Project Reality -- which produces the abstinence-only programs "Game Plan" and "Navigator" -- said, "The information presented in [the programs] is medically accurate, and all information presented is from data compiled by national sources such as CDC, NIH and the American Social Health Association," adding, "These curricula have been reviewed by physicians and public health professionals and have been found to be statistically and medically accurate" (Washington Times, 12/2). Joe McIlhaney, who runs the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which developed many of the curricula surveyed, said he is "saddened" that Waxman decided to "'blast' well-intentioned abstinence educators" even though abstinence-only education supporters and opponents agree on many things (Washington Post, 12/2).