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Waxman report reveals flaws in abstinence-only-until-marriage education.

Something remarkable happened on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2004: Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) issued a report on federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in his role as Ranking Member of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Government Reform. For the first time in the nearly 25 years that the federal government has funded these ideologically based programs, they became a matter of national discussion. All of the major news channels covered the report and its findings. A blip? Actually a milestone in the continuing struggle by advocates of evidence-based approaches that continues with vigilance in Washington and across the country.

The landmark report, The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, criticized the abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula used by over two-thirds of Special Projects of Regional and National Significance-Community Based Abstinence Education (SPRANS-CBAE) grantees. (1) This is is the largest (and most ideologically restrictive) federal funding stream for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs with a budget this fiscal year of over $100 million. Grantees are funded directly from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The report showed that 11 of the 13 most commonly used curricula contain medical misinformation, use fear and shame, blur religion and science, and perpetuate gender stereotypes.

The report was covered by CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other media outlets around the country. As I said on CNN's Paula Zahn Now, the report clearly shows that these programs are completely out of control. They use millions of taxpayer dollars to provide medical misinformation and use fear-and shame-based messages to coerce young people to change their behavior. We know that these approaches don't work to help youth make healthy decisions about sexuality The Waxman report clearly shows that our young people deserve better.

The abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula reviewed contained numerous medical and scientific inaccuracies. Perhaps the most disturbing occurs in the program WAIT Training, which teaches students that HIV/AIDS can be transmitted though tears and sweat. (2) In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that tears and sweat have never been shown to transmit HIV. (3) Other curricula give the wrong number of chromosomes in cells and incorrectly define sexually transmitted diseases and infections. (4)

The curricula also blur the line between religion and science, especially around abortion. The curriculum FACTS states, 'Conception, also known as fertilization, occurs when one sperm unites with one egg in the upper third of the fallopian tubes. This is when life begins.' Another, Me, My World, My Future, states that, 'Fertilization (or conception) occurs when one of the father's sperm unites with the mother's ovum (egg). At this instant a new human life is formed.' In fact, many gynecologic experts view fertilization and conception as distinct stages in pregnancy; and many hold differing views about when life begins. These curricula assume that all students and their parents share the same beliefs about the beginning of life and the morality of abortion. (5)

Many of the curricula also attempt to discourage young people from using contraception (including condoms) by distorting information about its efficacy Several refer to a study stating that condoms are only 69 percent effective, yet HHS discounted this study in 1997, stating that the 'FDA and CDC believe this analysis was flawed.' (6)

In addition to providing inaccurate medical information, several curricula blatantly promote negative gender stereotypes. They often show young women as weak and needing of protection from male sexuality, while describing young men as victims of their overwhelming sexual drives. An exercise from the Choosing the Best, for example, describes a knight who saves a princess from a dragon. The princess advises the knight on how to kill the dragon; the knight follows her advice and succeeds. He feels 'ashamed', however, and decides to marry a village girl instead of the princess, after making sure that the villager 'knew nothing about nooses or poisons.' (7) So much for women's empowerment.

Bruce Cook, president and founder of Choosing the Best, Inc., quickly attacked the Waxman report. He stated that, 'Choosing the Best does not deal with abortion, religion, or contain scientific errors.' (Cook did not address gender stereotypes.) (8) Other abstinence-only-until-marriage proponents (like the Abstinence Clearinghouse and Heritage Foundation) also attacked the report, saying that it took quotes out of context. (9)

The Bush Administration was curiously absent from much of this debate. Wade Horn, HHS' Assistant Secretary for Children and Families (which administers the programs) did not issue a statement or appear in media interviews. The government's only response was a press release from Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs, Alma Golden, a long-time supporter of these programs and ideological opponent of comprehensive sexuality education. Her response--factually incorrect--said, 'This report misses the boat. These issues have been raised before and discredited. Unfortunately what they continue to do for purely political reasons is to take issues and information out of context to try and discred it abstinence education, which is a disservice to our children.' Golden failed to address the medical inaccuracy issues, which are irrefutable. The Administration's position is basically to duck and cover until the storm passes ... tacit recognition that HHS cannot defend the indefensible.

The media wasn't swayed from pursuing the truth about these programs, however. In an appearance on ABC's This week with George Stephanopoulos, following the Waxman report's release, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) attempted to avoid the issue. When Stephanopoulos pursued the issue, Sen. Frist eventually said he would support a review of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Frist (who was a physician before coming to the Senate) refused to acknowledge the falsehood that HIV could be transmitted by sweat and tears, however.

Following the report's release and the ABC appearance, SIECUS coordinated a sign-on letter to Sen. Frist demanding a full review of these programs. The letter was signed by 210 organizations, including NWHN. While we await a response, Rep. Waxman has requested that the Government Accounting Office review oversight of the programs. The Administration, undeterred as ever, has asked for nearly $206 million for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in Fiscal Year '06; the largest increase went to the very programs the Waxman report exposed as faulty.

SIECUS has monitored and reviewed the content of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs since their inception and posted many of the reviews on our website (www.siecus.org). We also now apply the same level of scrutiny to the Bush Administration's funding of similar programs through U.S. international development programs. Finally, SIECUS has documented where every federal abstinence-only-until-marriage dollar is spent in each state in our State Profiles, available for free on our website.

The American public knows there is no need for the extremism that pervades abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. The public strongly supports giving young people accurate information about how to prevent pregnancy and HIV/AIDS and to stay healthy. Policymakers, however, tell us they need to hear from their constituents. One simple way you can take action is to visit the No New Money Campaign's website (www.nonewmoney.org). Cre-ated by SIECUS and supported by partners in every state, as well as leading advocacy organizations like NWHN, the website allows you to e-mail your elected representatives about this issue and make your voice heard.

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) has been the national voice for sexuality education, sexual health, and sexual rights for almost 40 years.

William Smith is the Vice President for Public Policy. References are available from the author at wsmith@siecusdc.org
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Author:Smith, William
Publication:Women's Health Activist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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