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House report a political attack, abstinence supporters say

WASHINGTON (BP)–The executive branch and pro-family organizations have strongly defended sexual abstinence education in the face of a recent Democratic congressional report charging many such federally funded programs teach erroneous information.

Rep. Henry Waxman, a frequent critic of President Bush and a California Democrat, released a report — from a study conducted for him — claiming that 11 of the 13 most popular curricula in the largest federally supported abstinence initiative contain false and misleading information.

The 26-page study, which was released Dec. 1, says the programs “contain false, misleading or distorted information” about contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and abortion. It also charges the curricula with confusing religion with science and portraying sexual stereotypes as facts. Abstinence education has not demonstrated it is effective in reducing teen pregnancy or the spread of STDs, according to the report.

“Something is seriously wrong when federal tax dollars are being used to mislead kids about basic health facts,” Waxman said in a written statement accompanying the report.

The study’s release follows the congressional approval of a 2005 federal budget that designates about $167 million for abstinence programs through three initiatives. The abstinence allocation has more than doubled the last four years under President Bush’s leadership.

Abstinence education promoters say the Waxman report is a politically motivated attack that has its own flaws.

“These issues have been raised before and discredited,” said Alma Golden, deputy assistant secretary for population affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services, in a written statement. “Unfortunately what they 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.”

Several critics of the report pointed to Waxman’s opposition to abstinence funding. The report was produced by the minority staff of the House of Representatives Government Reform Committee, on which Waxman is the ranking member.

Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America called the report, in a written release, “nothing but a political hit piece, an extremely misleading attempt to discredit abstinence programs because they pose a huge threat to the ‘safe sex’ establishment that promotes premarital sex, homosexuality and gender confusion.”

Libby Gray, director of the Illinois-based, abstinence-only organization Project Reality, said in a written statement, “Clearly, the motivation behind these attacks is the fact that abstinence programs are being supported by the Bush administration and are growing in number because of their cost-effective impact. This upsets groups who have been exclusively receiving federal funding for contraception promotion and education in the past and who to a great degree were the cause of many problems.

“When will ‘comprehensive sex’ education programs, that actually encourage teen sexual activity, be subject to the same scrutiny as abstinence programs?” said Gray.

Two of Project Reality’s curricula were among those criticized by the Waxman report.

Richard Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a co-founder of the True Love Waits abstinence program, criticized programs that promote the use of contraceptives.

“The ‘comprehensive sex’ education folks had their turn,” Ross said in a statement to Baptist Press. “Under their watch, teenage sexual activity increased for 20 straight years. Then in 1993 True Love Waits birthed the broader abstinence movement. The graphs that had increased for 20 years now have been in decline ever since.”

But Ross was quick to distance the True Love Waits program from other abstinence-based programs. He asserted that no research project has measured the successfulness of True Love Waits.

True Love Waits was introduced into Uganda 10 years ago and is credited by Ugandan First Lady Janet Musevani as the sole reason for a dramatic decrease in the number of newly diagnosed cases of AIDS in that nation.

“It is a mistake to lump True Love Waits in with all abstinence programs,” Ross said. “We are thankful for every effort to highlight abstinence and every program beats doing nothing. But True Love Waits stands apart from all other efforts in many important ways. Most programs ask kids to make a promise to a program or to themselves. We cannot compare such a promise with the power of a promise made by Christian teenagers to God Almighty.

“Without the supernatural power of a promise made to God, it is not surprising that participants of other programs sometimes break those hasty promises in the years that follow.”

True Love Waits doesn’t teach teenagers “about their biological plumbing,” Ross said.

“We don’t teach teenagers about birth control,” he said. “For 10 years we have tenaciously stayed on mission –- we call Christian teenagers to promise God they will keep His commandments related to sexuality and purity.”

The Heritage Foundation, which has analyzed both forms of sex education, repudiated some of the Waxman report’s findings. Melissa Pardue, a Heritage policy analyst, said the report:

— Denies the “well-established correlation” between adolescent sex and a greater risk of attempted suicide;

— Erroneously claims pledges to remain a virgin, such as the True Love Waits program, are ineffective;

— Falsely contends there is no evidence abstinence education reduces teen pregnancy or the risk of STDs.

“There are currently 10 evaluations showing the effectiveness of abstinence education in reducing teen sexual activity,” Pardue wrote. “Of these 10 evaluations, four were published in peer-review journals.”

A 2001 study published by the American Journal of Sociology showed that teenagers who pledge to remain sexually abstinent until marriage are 34 percent less likely to have sex than those who do not take virginity vows. The pledge works, the study suggested, because it creates an “identity movement” or “moral community” that provides peer support for teens.

To the charge of abstinence education’s ineffectiveness, Wade Horn — dubbed the “chastity czar” — told Hearst Newspapers, “I don’t need a study to show me that the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease is abstinence.”

Horn is assistant secretary for children and families at HHS.

The Waxman report’s attacks on abstinence education “blithely ignore the fact that government funding for contraception-based sex education far outweighs the spending for abstinence education,” Heritage’s Pardue said.

In 2002, Pardue said, federal and state governments “spent $12 promoting contraception and condom use for every $1 [they] spent to encourage teens to abstain from sexual activity.”

Heritage’s analysis of comprehensive sex ed shows such curricula “focus almost exclusively on contraception and include very little, if any, material on abstinence,” Pardue wrote. In Heritage’s study of nine different comprehensive sex ed curricula, “not one single sentence was found urging students to abstain from sexual activity through high school,” she said.

These programs, Pardue wrote, “contain sexually explicit material that is deeply alarming and offensive to nearly all parents.”

Joe McIlhaney, president of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Texas, admitted the Waxman report was correct in pointing out a mistake in his organization’s “Sexual Health Today” curriculum, according to The Washington Post. Research has shown a link between heart disease and Chlamydia, but it is not the form of Chlamydia that is sexually transmitted, the report said. “Sexual Health Today” describes it as being the same bacteria.

McIlhaney said he was “saddened” the report chose to “blast” abstinence educators when there is the opportunity for the two sides to agree on much.

The Waxman report may be found on the congressman’s Web site at www.house.gov/waxman.
— With reporting by Michael Foust