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Bad Science, Silly Gender Stereotypes, Dangerous Misinformation : Why Federally Funded Abstinence-On

Get the facts on President Bush’s pet project – ineffectual sex ed that puts students at risk.

Field Report, Rebecca Regan-Sachs, Georgetown University, Feb. 23, 2005

Get the facts on President Bush’s pet project – ineffectual sex ed that puts students at risk.
By Rebecca Regan-Sachs, Georgetown University

President Bush’s 2006 budget proposed deep cuts for “ineffective” programs like Medicaid, environmental protection, and certain college financial aid programs. One program that President Bush apparently feels is mighty effective is “abstinence-only” education, which the administration suggested pumping an additional $39 million into next year. This proposed increase came only one week after a comprehensive study in Bush’s home state of Texas showed that such curricula were correlated with an increase in teen sexual activity.

Federally-funded “abstinence-only” education courses are designed to exclude any discussion of contraception. But according to one Congressional study, they are also excluding a great deal of important medical information—while incorporating several wrong or misleading assertions.

The report, released Dec. 1, 2004 by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif), examined 13 of the most popular abstinence-only curricula, which are taught to millions of children between the ages of nine and 18. Of these, 11 were found to include patently “false, misleading, or distorted information,” such as the following gems: half of gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for AIDS; pregnancy can result from touching another person’s genitals; and women who have abortions are more prone to suicide and sterility.

Sixty-nine organizations in 25 states use abstinence-only curricula, among them schools, hospitals, religious groups, and health departments. Prior to 1999, these types of programs received no federal funding. Since then, the Bush administration has worked hard to increase their funding and visibility, initially proposing $270 million for the programs in 2005 (Congress later reduced the amount to $168 million).

The findings of the Waxman study intensified the debate over the appropriateness of abstinence-only education, as opposed to courses that include a balanced discussion of abstinence as part of a broader curriculum teaching contraception and sexual health. Conservatives have maintained that including lessons about contraception sends a “mixed message” to students, and that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Rep. Waxman argued that students should be educated about contraception in the event that they became sexually active. “I have no objection talking about abstinence as a surefire way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” he told The Washington Post. “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.”

The funding is especially controversial because of the lack of evidence so far that abstinence-only programs actually decrease teen sexual activity. A recent study in Texas, in fact, appeared to prove just the opposite; researchers at A & M University found that even after participating in abstinence-only courses, teenagers in 29 high schools became more sexually active, following statewide trends. (Sixty-one percent of high school students have had sex by the time they graduate, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)

Even teens who openly take “virginity pledges” to remain abstinent until marriage don’t always follow through. A CDC study showed that while many pledgers postponed having sex, 88 percent of them lost their virginity before marriage. More troubling still, the students who break this pledge are less likely to use contraceptives. In comparison, students in comprehensive sexual heath classes do not engage in sexual activity more often or sooner but do practice safer sex more consistently.

Proponents of abstinence-only education, however, insist that abstinence programs are working, and that attacks on the programs’ effectiveness are politically motivated.

“This report misses the boat,” said Dr. Alma Golden, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, in a press statement. “what [the critics] continue to do for purely political reasons is to take issues and information out of context to try and discredit abstinence education, which is a disservice to our children.”

Dr. Golden’s protests aside, the inaccuracies of these curriculums are undeniable. For instance, one curriculum states that humans receive 24 chromosomes each from their mother and father; the actual number is 23. Another curriculum states that premarital sex can cause cervical cancer. In addition, some curriculums grossly misrepresent the ineffectiveness of available birth control such as condoms. Yet another curriculum states that with scrupulous use of condoms, 14% of women will get pregnant when, in fact, the correct figure is 2%.

In addition to presenting misleading information, abstinence-only programs sometimes censor basic sexual health information. For example, in Lynchburg, Virginia, the school board refused to approve a science textbook intended for high school students unless an illustration of a vagina was cut out or covered up.

Jessica Arons, Legal Policy Associate for the Women’s Health Program at the Center for American Progress, says it is inaccuracies such as these that trouble her, not the inclusion of abstinence in a sex-ed curriculum. “I would like to see sex education be based on medically accurate information instead of distortions and fear,” she said. “Teaching the benefits of postponing sex is very important and should certainly be part of any sex education class…[but] sex education needs to be medically accurate and it needs to help all the students—even those who decide to have sex.”

In addition to being scientifically ignorant, several of the curricula contain embarrassingly outdated and stereotypical notions about gender and sexuality. As the Waxman report notes, one course presented as scientific fact the idea that men find happiness through “admiration” and “sexual fulfillment,” while women require “financial support.” Another text included a story about a knight who rejected a princess for a village maiden because the princess offered him too much advice about how to slay a dragon. “Moral of the story,” the ending reads: “Occasional suggestions and assistance may be all right, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.” These curricula all seem intended to make our students travel back in time.

The release of the Waxman report is not the only time abstinence-only programs have come under fire recently. In May 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit in Louisiana charging that the state government had used funds allotted to abstinence programs to promote religious activities such as prayer vigils outside abortion clinics and “Christ-centered” sexual abstinence skits. After a U.S. District judge ruled in favor of the ACLU later that year, the state settled the case by agreeing to monitor grant recipients more closely. Yet as of today, the ACLU maintains that the state’s abstinence-only web site continues to feature religious material, though the state insists it is in accordance with the ruling.

Just last week, a letter from Rep. Waxman revealed that the Bush administration had awarded a grant to promote abstinence in African youth to a political group whose proposal had been ruled “not suitable for funding” by an expert funding review panel from USAID. USAID’s chief, Andrew Natsios, overturned their decision. The Children’s AIDS Fund, a leading promoter of abstinence based education run by the co-chairman of Bush’s Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS, was then awarded an estimated $9 million in funding last fall. Rep. Waxman is seeking details from the Children’s AIDS Fund’s grant proposal and an explanation for the overturning of the committee’s decision.

Despite the fact that a large majority of Americans support thorough and accurate sexuality education, abstinence-only education remains one of the religious right’s favorite pet projects. Abstinence-only programs contain alarmist misinformation about sexuality and often force-feed students religiously based condemnations of masturbation, abortion, contraception and homosexuality. By removing critical sexual health information from libraries, school internet portals, and classrooms, we are risking student’s sexual health.

Illustration: Matt Bors

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