HHS Should Enforce Federal Law That Abstinence Education Programs Teach ‘Medically Accurate’ Information, ACLU Letter Says
The American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States and Advocates for Youth on Thursday sent a letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt saying that the agency should enforce a federal law that states abstinence education must include "medically accurate" information about condom effectiveness, the Washington Times reports (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 4/27).
John Santelli, a pediatrician and professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, in a 20-page analysis accompanying the letter wrote that some federally funded abstinence-only programs cite an outdated 1993 study that found condoms failed to prevent HIV infection 31% of the time during heterosexual sex, the Washington Post reports. According to Santelli, recent studies have shown that an HIV-negative person reduces the risk of contracting HIV from an HIV-positive partner by 80% to 87% if condoms are always used during sexual intercourse. Santelli's analysis also shows that programs use incorrect data for the risk of an unintended pregnancy resulting after sexual intercourse using a condom and for the likelihood a condom will break or fall off during intercourse (Lee, Washington Post, 4/28).
According to the letter, which was signed by Ava Barbour and Julie Sternberg of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, three federally funded abstinence education programs, an HHS Web site and a pamphlet "all violate a federal law requiring certain educational materials to contain medically accurate information about condom effectiveness" (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 4/27). The letter highlights:
- The Web site www.4parents.gov;
- The pamphlet "Parents, Speak Up!";
- The program "Why kNOw," published by a Tennessee-based organization;
- The program "Me, My World, My Future," published by Spokane, Wash.-based Teen-Aid; and
- The program "Sexuality, Commitment and Family," also published by Teen-Aid.
The letter added that if HHS does not correct the information within 30 days, the ACLU will take legal action, the Times reports.
HHS spokesperson Christina Pearson declined to comment on the letter but said that the agency's abstinence programs "have been and will continue to be medically accurate." Pearson added that HHS' Administration for Children and Families "takes appropriate steps to correct" information in sex education programs that is inaccurate or outdated. Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said that abstinence education professionals are "committed to being accurate in all of our assertions." Advocates for Youth Executive Vice President Deb Hauser said that HHS has been notified "numerous times" about inaccuracies in abstinence-based sex education programs, including a Government Accountability Office report released in November 2006 that found most programs are not reviewed for scientific accuracy before they are granted (Washington Times, 4/27). LeAnna Benn, national director for Teen-Aid, said that 25 physicians reviewed its abstinence information for accuracy, adding that ACLU is attempting to influence Congress to end funding for abstinence-based programs. "Teen-Aid's position is always to be free from medical error and to help teens be free from consequences," Benn said, adding, "This is about the funding. ... Santelli's report, it's all regurgitated stuff" (Washington Post, 4/28).
The letter is available online. Note: You must have Adobe Acrobat to view the letter.