Rep. Waxman Questions HHS for Allegedly Allowing Change in Content of CDC Conference Panel on STIs, Abstinence Education
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on Tuesday in a letter to HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt questioned whether the department allowed a member of Congress to influence a change in a panel participating in the 2006 National STD Prevention Conference in Jacksonville, Fla., the Philadelphia Inquirer reports (Fallik, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/11). According to government officials, CDC changed the name of the abstinence panel, which was held on Tuesday, and the conference added two speakers to the panel and removed another. The title of the panel was changed from "Are Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?" to "Public Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth." The panel originally included John Santelli, a professor at Columbia University; William Smith, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States; Bruce Trigg, who heads an STI program in New Mexico; and Maryjo Oster, a Pennsylvania State University student who had planned to discuss how abstinence programs were linked to increases in STI rates. The revised panel included Santelli; Patricia Sulak, an ob-gyn and director of the Worth the Wait program, which supports abstinence education; Trigg; and Eric Walsh of Loma Linda University. CDC did not require the new speakers to be reviewed by the meeting's organizers. CDC spokesperson Terry Butler said there was not enough time to put the new speakers through the peer-review process. Researchers organizing the panel, which was to discuss the efficacy of abstinence-until-marriage programs in reducing the rate of sexually transmitted infections, said that CDC allowed Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Drug Policy, to influence change in the conference. Souder's office last week in an e-mail to HHS asked whether CDC was "clear about the controversial nature of [the conference] and its obvious antiabstinence objective" and asked for a shift in the focus of the conference. Souder said he was concerned because one of the speakers on the original panel was scheduled to speak about a report, produced by Waxman, that is "critical" of abstinence programs, while no one was scheduled to speak in favor of the programs (Kaiser Daily Women's Health Policy Report, 5/9).
Waxman in the letter said, "In effect, it appears that presentations at a public health conference were censored because they criticized abstinence-only education." He also wrote, "'Political correctness,' whether from the right or the left, should not displace the scientific review process," adding, "This attempt at thought control should have no place in our government." Waxman said he requested copies of all communications between HHS and CDC about changes that were made among the panel's speakers. He also called on HHS and CDC to pledge that decisions about future members of conference panels be made by scientists and their public health colleagues "and not subjected to political litmus tests" (Waxman letter, 5/9). Waxman said he requested a response by June 1, and an HHS spokesperson said the agency would respond to Waxman's inquiry in a "timely fashion." Marc Wheat, chief counsel for the drug policy subcommittee that oversees CDC, said, "They're upset because we rained on their little party," adding, "They don't like to have their orthodoxy questioned." Wheat added that the conference's organizers had an anti-abstinence agenda, and CDC was responsible for ensuring the inclusion of officials with opposing views. Santelli said, "It's deplorable to see that amount of political pressure brought to bear on the CDC," adding, "Ultimately, though, it was a good, vigorous debate" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/11).