Washington Post, December 2, 2004
Programs Mislead Teens, Report Says
Many American youngsters participating in federally
funded abstinence-only programs have been taught
over the past three years that abortion can
lead to sterility and suicide, that half the
gay male teenagers in the United States have
tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that
touching a person's genitals "can result
in pregnancy," a congressional staff analysis
Those and other assertions are examples of the
"false, misleading, or distorted information"
in the programs' teaching materials, said the
analysis, released yesterday, which reviewed
the curricula of more than a dozen projects
aimed at preventing teenage pregnancy and sexually
In providing nearly $170 million next year to
fund groups that teach abstinence only, the
Bush administration, with backing from the
Republican Congress, is investing heavily in
a just-say-no strategy for teenagers and sex.
But youngsters taking the courses frequently
receive medically inaccurate or misleading
information, often in direct contradiction
to the findings of government scientists, said
the report, by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.),
a critic of the administration who has long
argued for comprehensive sex education.
Several million children ages 9 to 18 have participated
in the more than 100 federal abstinence programs
since the efforts began in 1999. Waxman's staff
reviewed the 13 most commonly used curricula
-- those used by at least five programs apiece.
The report concluded that two of the curricula
were accurate but the 11 others, used by 69
organizations in 25 states, contain unproved
claims, subjective conclusions or outright
falsehoods regarding reproductive health, gender
traits and when life begins. In some cases,
Waxman said in an interview, the factual issues
were limited to occasional misinterpretations
of publicly available data; in others, the
materials pervasively presented subjective
opinions as scientific fact.
Among the misconceptions cited by Waxman's investigators:
* A 43-day-old fetus is a "thinking person."
* HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread
via sweat and tears.
* Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as
often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual
One curriculum, called "Me, My World, My
Future," teaches that women who have an
abortion "are more prone to suicide"
and that as many as 10 percent of them become
sterile. This contradicts the 2001 edition
of a standard obstetrics textbook that says
fertility is not affected by elective abortion,
the Waxman report said.
"I have no objection talking about abstinence
as a surefire way to prevent unwanted pregnancy
and sexually transmitted diseases," Waxman
said. "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."
When used properly and consistently, condoms
fail to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted
diseases (STDs) less than 3 percent of the
time, federal researchers say, and it is not
known how many gay teenagers are HIV-positive.
The assertion regarding gay teenagers may be
a misinterpretation of data from the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention that found
that 59 percent of HIV-infected males ages
13 to 19 contracted the virus through homosexual
Joe. S. McIlhaney Jr., who runs the Medical Institute
for Sexual Health, which developed much of
the material that was surveyed, said he is
"saddened" that Waxman chose to "blast"
well-intentioned abstinence educators when
there is much the two sides could agree on.
McIlhaney acknowledged that his group, which
publishes "Sexual Health Today" instruction
manuals, made a mistake in describing the relationship
between a rare type of infection caused by
chlamydia bacteria and heart failure. Chlamydia
also causes a common type of sexually transmitted
infection, but that is not linked to heart
disease. But McIlhaney said Waxman misinterpreted
a slide that warns young people about the possibility
of pregnancy without intercourse. McIlhaney
said the slide accurately describes a real,
though small, risk of pregnancy in mutual masturbation.
Congress first allocated money for abstinence-only
programs in 1999, setting aside $80 million
in grants, which go to a variety of religious,
civic and medical organizations. To be eligible,
groups must limit discussion of contraception
to failure rates.
President Bush has enthusiastically backed the
movement, proposing to spend $270 million on
abstinence projects in 2005. Congress reduced
that to about $168 million, bringing total
abstinence funding to nearly $900 million over
five years. It does not appear that the abstinence-only
curricula are being taught in the Washington
Waxman and other liberal sex-education proponents
argue that adolescents who take abstinence-only
programs are ill-equipped to protect themselves
if they become sexually active. According to
the latest CDC data, 61 percent of graduating
high school seniors have had sex.
Supporters of the abstinence approach, also called
abstinence until marriage, counter that teaching
young people about "safer sex" is
an invitation to have sex.
Alma Golden, deputy assistant secretary for population
affairs in the Department of Health and Human
Services, said in a statement that Waxman's
report is a political document that does a
"disservice to our children." Speaking
as a pediatrician, Golden said, she knows "abstaining
from sex is the most effective means of preventing
the sexual transmission of HIV, STDs and preventing
Nonpartisan researchers have been unable to document
measurable benefits of the abstinence-only
model. Columbia University researchers found
that although teenagers who take "virginity
pledges" may wait longer to initiate sexual
activity, 88 percent eventually have premarital
Bill Smith, vice president of public policy at
the Sexuality Information and Education Council
of the United States, a comprehensive sex education
group that also receives federal funding, said
the Waxman report underscored the need for
closer monitoring of what he called the "shame-based,
fear-based, medically inaccurate messages"
being disseminated with tax money. He said
the danger of abstinence education lies in
the omission of useful medical information.
Some course materials cited in Waxman's report
present as scientific fact notions about a
man's need for "admiration" and "sexual
fulfillment" compared with a woman's need
for "financial support.." One book
in the "Choosing Best" series tells
the story of a knight who married a village
maiden instead of the princess because the
princess offered so many tips on slaying the
local dragon. "Moral of the story,"
notes the popular text: "Occasional suggestions
and assistance may be alright, but too much
of it will lessen a man's confidence or even
turn him away from his princess."
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