Let's Talk About Sex

The truly awesome Rep. Henry Waxman has done it again. At his request, the Special Investigations Division of the House Committee on Government Reform—Minority Staff, has prepared a report on the Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs. The report:
evaluates the content of the most popular abstinence-only curricula used by grantees of the largest federal abstinence initiative, SPRANS (Special Programs of Regional and National Significance Community-Based Abstinence Education). Through SPRANS, the Department of Health and Human Services provides grants to community organizations that teach abstinence-only curricula to youth.
By definition, abstinence-only programs
promote abstinence from all sexual activity, usually until marriage, as the only way to reduce the risks of pregnancy, disease, and other potential consequences of sex. The programs define sexual activity broadly and do not teach basic facts about contraception. […] They are allowed to mention contraceptives only to describe their failure rates. […] None of the curricula provides information on how to select a birth control method and use it effectively.
This report is significant for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the analyzed materials were used by over two-thirds of SPRANS grantees last year. Perhaps the most important part of this endeavor, however, is its uniqueness. As it happens,
The curricula used in SPRANS and other federally funded programs are not reviewed for accuracy by the federal government.
So we owe a debt to Rep Waxman for commissioning this report, since no one else apparently bothers to look into it. Their findings are, to say the least, disturbing. Over 80% of the curricula reviewed was found to contain “false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health.” Such findings beg the question, then, as to why the Bush administration has expanded federal funding for these abstinence-only programs:
The federal government will spend approximately $170 million on abstinence-only education programs in fiscal year 2005, more than twice the amount spent in fiscal year 2001. As a result, abstinence-only education, which promotes abstinence from sexual activity without teaching basic facts about contraception, now reaches millions of children and adolescents each year.
Some of the most damning findings of the report were:
· Abstinence-Only Curricula Contain False Information about the Effectiveness of Contraceptives. Many of the curricula misrepresent the effectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. One curriculum says that “the popular claim that ‘condoms help prevent the spread of STDs,’ is not supported by the data”; another states that “[i]n heterosexual sex, condoms fail to prevent HIV approximately 31% of the time”; and another teaches that a pregnancy occurs one out of every seven times that couples use condoms. These erroneous statements are presented as proven scientific facts.

· Abstinence-Only Curricula Contain False Information about the Risks of Abortion. One curriculum states that 5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile; that “[p]remature birth, a major cause of mental retardation, is increased following the abortion of a first pregnancy”; and that “[t]ubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following abortions.” In fact, these risks do not rise after the procedure used in most abortions in the United States.

· Abstinence-Only Curricula Blur Religion and Science. Many of the curricula present as scientific fact the religious view that life begins at conception. For example, one lesson states: “Conception, also known as fertilization, occurs when one sperm unites with one egg in the upper third of the fallopian tube. This is when life begins.” Another curriculum calls a 43-day-old fetus a “thinking person.”

· Abstinence-Only Curricula Treat Stereotypes about Girls and Boys as Scientific Fact. One curriculum teaches that women need “financial support,” while men need “admiration.” Another instructs: “Women gauge their happiness and judge their success on their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.”

· Abstinence-Only Curricula Contain Scientific Errors. In numerous instances, the abstinence-only curricula teach erroneous scientific information. One curriculum incorrectly lists exposure to sweat and tears as risk factors for HIV transmission. Another curriculum states that “twenty-four chromosomes from the mother and twenty-four chromosomes from the father join to create this new individual”; the correct number is 23.
Aside from problematic misstatements of fact throughout the curricula, the report also identified an unsettling tendency to substitute religion for science. Although no one who is familiar with the ongoing Evolution vs Creationism debates, or the categorical insistence on replacing scientific theory with Biblical supposition, will be surprised by this finding, it is truly offensive to even have to entertain the notion that our children are being indoctrinated into such narrowly drawn beliefs about human sexuality:
By their nature, abstinence-only curricula teach moral judgments alongside scientific facts. The SPRANS program mandates, for example, that programs teach that having sex only within marriage “is the expected standard of human sexual activity.” In some of the curricula, the moral judgments are explicitly religious. For example, in a newsletter accompanying one popular curriculum, the author laments that as a result of societal change, “No longer were we valued as spiritual beings made by a loving Creator.” The curriculum’s author closes the section by signing, “In His Service.”


Several curricula offer as scientific fact moral or religious definitions of early fetuses as babies or people, in the process supplying inaccurate descriptions of their developmental state. One curriculum that describes fetuses as “babies” describes the blastocyst, technically a ball of 107 to 256 cells at the beginning of uterine implantation, as “snuggling” into the uterus: After conception, the tiny baby moves down the fallopian tube toward the mother’s uterus. About the sixth to tenth day after conception, when the baby is no bigger than this dot (.), baby snuggles into the soft nest in the lining of the mother’s uterus. Another teaches: “At 43 days, electrical brain wave patterns can be recorded, evidence that mental activity is taking place. This new life may be thought of as a thinking person.”
Ultimately, however, whether one agrees or disagrees with the agenda behind abstinence-only education, or the means by which children should be taught about their sexuality, surely all can agree that the intent of any sex education program is to protect the children to whom it is directed. Even on that most basic issue, abstinence-only education fails the test:
There have been several studies of the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. These studies have found that abstinence-only education does not appear to decrease teen pregnancy or the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. In the most comprehensive analysis of teen pregnancy prevention programs, researchers found that “the few rigorous studies of abstinence-only curricula that have been completed to date do not show any overall effect on sexual behavior or contraceptive use.”

One recent study of abstinence-only programs found that they may actually increase participants’ risk. Columbia University researchers found that while virginity “pledge” programs helped some participants to delay sex, 88% still had premarital sex, and their rates of sexually transmitted diseases showed no statistically significant difference from those of nonpledgers. Virginity pledgers were also less likely to use contraception when they did have sex and were less likely to seek STD testing despite comparable infection rates.

In contrast, comprehensive sex education that both encourages abstinence and teaches about effective contraceptive use has been shown in many studies to delay sex, reduce the frequency of sex, and increase the use of condoms and other contraceptives.
The failure rate of these programs alone should doom the reviewed curricula to the dustbin, but instead, this administration has decided to increase funding and thereby reach out to more and more American kids with this dangerous drivel.

The report sums it up thusly:
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 and why youth who pledge abstinence are significantly less likely to make informed choices about precautions when they do have sex.
No child left behind.

Later, I will take a further look at this topic and how the curricula hold special danger for the girls exposed to them.


Jesus’ General, AMERICAblog, and Atrios have all examined the same report. Check them out, too.

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