Abstinence Makes the Head Grow Softer

A new report finds that federally funded abstinence-only educations contains "false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health."

Abstinence Makes the Head Grow Softer
Illustration By Doug Potter

While the amount of federal money earmarked for abstinence-only sex education has more than doubled in less than four years, a report released this month by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., reveals that the majority of the most popular ab-only curricula contain "false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health." Federal funding for abstinence-only sex education has "expanded rapidly" from approximately $70 million in fiscal year 2001 to nearly $170 million in FY 05 – yet oversight of the educational content of the various ab-only curricula is nonexistent.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services awards grant money (through several programs) to public and private entities – including religious organizations, health care districts, and public school districts – to provide ab-only instruction. As a part of the deal the grantees must "agree not to provide ... any other education regarding sexual conduct in the same setting" – including any discussion of the use of contraceptives, except to point out their failure rates. (Indeed, grantees must follow the feds' eight-point definition of sex ed in order to qualify for funding, including a mandate that curricula teach that sex outside of marriage can lead to mental health issues.) Grantees are required to submit a table of contents for curricula, but the actual curricula are not reviewed for accuracy.

As a result, the Waxman-requested report reveals, 80% of the curricula used by two-thirds of grantees awarded money through the government's main ab-only funding program contain a plethora of inaccuracies and distortions – including false data on contraceptive efficacy and the risks associated with abortion. "Serious and pervasive problems with the accuracy of abstinence-only curricula may help explain why these programs have not been shown to protect adolescents from sexually transmitted diseases," reads the report. It may also explain "why youth who pledge abstinence are significantly less likely to make informed choices about precautions when they do have sex."

According to the report, prepared by the Minority Staff Special Investigations Division of the House Committee on Government Reform, 11 of the 13 most popular ab-only curricula contain serious errors. The 11 curricula – with titles like "Sexual Health Today," "Why kNOw," and "Choosing the Best Life" – are used in 25 states by 69 grantees that received approximately $32 million in funding during FY 03. In total, in FY 04, over 100 grantees received $75 million in federal grant money through the government's largest ab-only grant source, a program known as Special Projects of Regional and National Significance (up from 33 grantees receiving a total of $20 million in FY 01) – all without any educational accountability. And, the report contends, the lack of oversight shows.

Several of the ab-only curricula teach students that HIV and other STD pathogens can "pass through" latex condoms – despite the Centers for Disease Control's finding that the condom provides a nearly "impenetrable" barrier. One curriculum, the so-called WAIT Training, teaches that contact with "sweat" or "tears" leads to an increased risk of contracting HIV. Additionally, the Sexual Health Today curriculum, used by 10 grantees, teaches students that "touching another person's genitals can result in pregnancy."

The report also reveals that a number of curricula provide "erroneous" information about risks associated with abortion – including claims that abortion causes sterility in up to 10% of women, and that women are "more prone to suicide" after having an abortion – claims that have been debunked by medical research. The researchers also found that some programs mix religion and science. One claims that fertilization and conception are one and the same – "This is where life begins," teaches one middle school curriculum; another describes a 6-day-old fetus as a baby "snuggling" into the "soft nest" of the mother's uterus.

In all, Waxman said, most popular ab-only programs are both scientifically and medically inaccurate. "Something is seriously wrong when federal tax dollars are being used to mislead kids about basic health facts," he said. According to information compiled by the Texas Freedom Network, at least $5.2 million in ab-only grant money has been awarded to at least 20 Texas groups – including Dallas ISD, which received $225,000 in FY 02. (At press time, a DISD spokesman had not returned a call requesting comment.) In FY 03, Fort Bend ISD was awarded ab-only grant funding; the Pampa-based nonprofit Worth the Wait, which provides instruction to public schools in Amarillo, Pampa, and Highland Park, received approximately $372,000 in FY 01. (According to HHS, Worth the Wait also received funding in FY 03; at press time the exact amount was not available. The name "Worth the Wait" is also used by two other Texas-based ab-only programs – one run by Scott and White out of Temple, and a Pentecostal program based in Pearland.)

Conversely, the government does not offer any similar grant funding for balanced sex-ed programs that are abstinence-based, but which also offer information on safe sex and contraceptives, said Heather Paffe, political director for the Texas Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. Paffe said that Planned Parenthood provides educational programs for a variety of groups – including churches, Boy and Girl Scout groups and public schools – but that they receive no federal assistance. And according to Tracy Diggs, student health services coordinator for Austin ISD, the district's sex ed program is "abstinence-based," but also teaches about contraceptive use – including "reality rates" for contraceptive failure – but is not eligible for and therefore receives no federal funding for the health education programs.

Responding to the report, U.S. Senate Majority Leader (and physician) Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said that "of course" the ab-only programs should be reviewed. "That's in part our responsibility to make sure that all of these programs are reviewed," he said on ABC's This Week. Waxman and the other minority reform members will likely ask the Government Accountability Office to do further research, said Karen Lightfoot, spokeswoman for the reform committee minority office, but so far no plans or pledges to reform the ab-only grant program have been publicly floated.

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