Some Abstinence Programs Mislead Teens, Report SaysBy Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page A01
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 has found.
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 transmitted disease.
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 intercourse.
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 relations.
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 area.
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 pregnancy."
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 sex.
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."http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26623-2004Dec1.html