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Abstaining from truth

Report bares abstinence-only falsehoods

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When federal dollars are used to teach kids about the birds and the bees, children might be avoiding more than just an uncomfortable conversation with their parents. According to a recently released report on nationwide reproductive-health curricula, they might be missing the truth.

“Abstinence-only education, which promotes abstinence from sexual activity without teaching basic facts about contraception, now reaches millions of adolescents each year,” states the report released earlier this month by U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., of the House Committee on Government Reform. “These curricula contain misinformation about condoms, abortion and basic scientific facts.”

The report, which examined the curricula used as part of the national “abstinence-only” education initiative, found that more than two-thirds of recipients of the funding were not only providing students with medically and scientifically inaccurate information, but also reinforcing stereotypes and presenting religious beliefs as fact. No one is holding them accountable for the content of their lessons.

“As condom usage has increased, so have rates of STDs,” reads a lesson taken from the Navigator teaching guide, used as a supplemental curriculum in Montana and one of the more popular abstinence-only curricula cited in Waxman’s report. In another curriculum’s teaching guide, the lesson goes so far as to directly question whether safer-sex measures make any difference at all, saying that “the popular claim that condoms help prevent the spread of STDs is not supported by the data.” These claims have been repeatedly contradicted by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous experts.

According to the report, such programs have seen their funding more than double since 2001. In Montana, the Department of Public Health and Human Services receives federal abstinence-only dollars, which are managed through its Montana Abstinence Partnership (MAP) program. The bulk of the funds, which require a state match, are used for media campaigns, says MAP coordinator Jon Berg, with a portion designated as grants to community-based organizations that teach abstinence. In 2003, Montana received $186,000 in federal abstinence dollars and funded eight grants, including grants to the Richland County Health Department and the Cascade City-County Health Department. In 2002, Berg says, MAP programs reached 26,000 individuals. None of that money is routed directly through the Office of Public Instruction, but community-based organizations that do receive federal funds work with youth in a variety of settings, including the schools.

For its part, the Office of Public Instruction supports abstinence-based education as well, says Susan Court, OPI’s HIV/AIDS education specialist. Abstinence-based education goes one step further than abstinence-only education, she says.

“We realize that there are 44 percent of kids in our Montana high schools who have had sexual intercourse,” Court says. “OPI’s program offers information on prevention methods along with emphasizing the importance of abstinence.”

While OPI is free to support abstinence-based education, Montana state law provides that health education curriculum, including sex-ed, is determined at the local level. While state law requires one unit of health enhancement (including disease-prevention) for high school students to graduate, required components vary by school district. “It’s a gray area,” Court says.

A 2002 survey administered to Montana high school principals shows that roughly 73 percent of the state’s high schools teach comprehensive sexuality education, which includes pregnancy- and STD-prevention, says Court. The other 27 percent “may be” using abstinence-only curricula, Court says.

For the Montana Abstinence Partnership programs, abstinence is the only advocated protection against unintended pregnancy and STDs.

In order to qualify for MAP funding, organizations must pledge to focus sexual education programs on abstinence, while refusing to discuss the use of contraceptives or safer-sex measures— unless, that is, discussion centers on their rates of failure.

According to critics, abstinence-only curricula are not reviewed for accuracy by the government.

“I have no problems with trying an abstinence education program,” said Waxman in a recent interview. “But I think it ought to be measured by the same standards of any other program.”

And among the most popular curricula being taught by abstinence-only education programs, errors and simplistic stereotypes abound—including some questionable lessons about the differences between men and women.

“Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships,” explains one lesson in the Why kNOw series of abstinence-only curriculum, adding that for men, “happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.”

In similar fashion, another curriculum teaches that men “tend to be more tuned in to what is happening today and what needs to be done for a secure future,” while women are “not as concerned about preparing for retirement.”

Also cited in Waxman’s report is an abundance of misleading information regarding conception, abortion and the risks of premarital sex.

“Ten to twelve weeks after conception . . . he/she can hear and see,” explains a lesson in Me, My World, My Future, citing a source that, according to the Waxman report, does not support this statement about embryonic development at all. One curriculum describes the blastocyst, a ball of 107 to 256 cells, “snuggling” into the uterine lining.

Several curricula also dramatically exaggerate the dangers of abortion, telling students that women who have an abortion are likely to become sterile or give birth to mentally retarded children in the future. In similar fashion, a lesson from Navigator also warns that premarital sex puts women at risk for cervical cancer, while another curriculum teaches that feelings of jealousy, depression and disappointment can be avoided by being “abstinent until marriage.”

The Waxman report generated swift responses from the abstinence-only crowd. Alma Golden, MD, deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at the Office of Public Health and Science in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, dismissed the findings. “This report misses the boat,” she writes in a prepared statement. “These issues have been raised before and discredited…Studies show, as does my own experience as a pediatrician, that abstinence works especially when combined with the involvement of parents in educating their children about what expectations they have and the setting of boundaries of behavior.”

The Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MISH), a Texas-based nonprofit that produces some of the material used by the abstinence-only programs, also contested Waxmans’ findings. MISH President and CEO Joe Mcllhaney, MD, in a letter to the Washington Post, says that pointing out the errors in various curricula does not serve teens. “Had Congressman Waxman shined an equally bright light on the traditional, so-called comprehensive sex education programs, he undoubtedly would have found as many if not more mistakes.” And, he writes, “Pointing out mistakes in curricula provides no insight into how best to help America’s young people.” In a direct response to the Waxman report, McIlhaney points to two “well-documented highly successful abstinence programs,” which research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1987 and the Journal of Community Health in 2001.

In Montana, MAP’s Jon Berg considers the Waxman report a compilation of cherry-picked data presented out of context.

Studies, data and contexts aside, it’s the Bush administration doling out the dollars. Despite the abstinence-only materials’ questionable content, the administration continued its four-year trend of increasing support for these programs earlier this year by proposing $270 million in federal funding for them in 2005. Congress approved $170 million. Whether that money is well-spent, however, tends to depend on whom you ask. While supporters of abstinence-only education insist that discussion of contraceptives, abortion and related issues increase children’s promiscuity, critics contend that comprehensive sexual education programs better prepare children for their sexual futures.

In Montana, teen sex appears to be on the decline. The percentage of high school students who reported having had sexual intercourse dropped from 51 percent in 1991 to 43.6 percent in 2003. Proponents of abstinence-only and abstinence-based education claim credit for the drop. The percentage of teens who reported using a condom during their last intercourse increased during the same span from 48.2 percent to 63.2 percent.

“The data tells us that more sexually active students are using condoms to reduce their risk for STDs, including HIV, and unintended pregnancy,” says OPI’s Court. “This potentially lifesaving information is provided only through a comprehensive abstinence-based program like that offered to educators by the Office of Public Instruction.”

In the end, the least expensive route to sex-ed may prove most popular—“the talk” between parents and children, supported by both the OPI and MAP. A chat about the birds and the bees, though, moistens many parents’ palms.

“Many surveys have found that parents feel ill-equipped and uncomfortable talking with their children about sex and feel that it is the role of the school to provide their child with information that will help them make healthy decisions,” Court says.

Says Berg: “This is one of the most difficult areas, to get parents involved.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of Albany, N.Y.’s Metroland. Additional reporting by Keila Szpaller.

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