Dec. 4, 2004 – A congressional report released last week by Representative Henry Waxman (D-California) found that many federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs contain false and misleading information about reproductive health.
The study, conducted by the House Committee on Government Reformâ€™s Special Investigation Division, concluded that over two-thirds of the curricula analyzed contain multiple scientific and medical inaccuracies.
House researchers limited their study to programs funded by Special Programs of Regional and National Significance (SPRANS), which received the bulk of the $138 million in federal monies budgeted for grants to abstinence-only programs for fiscal year 2004. SPRANS programs received $75 million of the available grants in 2004 for federally-funded abstinence education. To qualify for a SPRANS grant, the curriculum cannot teach any method other than abstinence to reduce the risk of pregnancy and can only mention contraceptives in order to explain their rates of failure.
The studyâ€™s findings concluded that eleven of the thirteen most used curricula by SPRANS programs contained major errors and distortions of public health information. These curricula were used in 25 states by state health departments, school districts, hospitals and community-based organizations.
The misrepresentations and errors ranged from inaccurate statistics about abortion-related hazards to misstatements of scientific fact.
For instance, Me, My World, My Future, a textbook published by Teen-Aid, says that five to ten percent of women who have a legal abortion will become sterile. But, according to the Waxman study, there is no evidence that elective abortions performed in the US alter a womanâ€™s fertility except in extreme cases.
Another curriculum, published by Why kNOw Abstinence Education, teaches that human cells have 24 chromosomes from each parent when in fact there are 23. The same textbook erroneously teaches that "girls produce only female ovum, boys, however, have both male and female sperm," as quoted by the Waxman study.
The study also cited inaccurate assertions from the curricula about the failure of condoms and the rates at which they prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
"When used by real people in real-life situations, research confirms that 14 percent of the
women who use condoms scrupulously for birth control become pregnant within a year," teaches Big Talk Book, published by Choosing the Best. As the studyâ€™s authors point out, however, couples that use condoms properly and "scrupulously," experience a failure rate of only 2 to 3 percent in the course of twelve months.
On the topic of HIV prevention through condom use, several of the curricula cite a now-discredited study conducted by Dr. Susan Weller in 1993, according to the report released by Waxman. Wellerâ€™s study, which was rejected by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, concluded that condoms only reduce HIV transmission by 69 percent.
Waxmanâ€™s report also found that stereotypes about men and women were being taught as fact. For instance, the report quotes Why kNOw curriculum as teaching that "women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships" while suggesting that "menâ€™s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments."
Teachers are also telling students that life begins at conception, as if the controversial viewpoint were based on solid scientific data rather than a religious belief system. According to the report, one lesson middle school curriculum published by Northwest Family Services, 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." Meanwhile, Me, My World, My Future calls a 43-day-old fetus a "thinking person."
In a press statement about the report, Rep. Waxman said: "It is absolutely vital that the health education provided to Americaâ€™s youth be scientifically and medically accurate. The abstinence-only programs reviewed in this report fail to meet this standard. Something is seriously wrong when federal dollars are being used to mislead kids about basic health facts."
Abstinence proponents criticized Waxmanâ€™s report for being politically motivated and some of the curriculaâ€™s publishers called the study inaccurate and misleading. But pro-choice and womenâ€™s rights groups praised the report.
"They are actually requiring teachers to teach students blatant and dangerous falsehoods," said Nancy Keenan, president of the nonprofit womenâ€™s rights organization NARAL Pro-Choice America. "Only when people are armed with complete and accurate information can they make appropriate decisions. It's time for Congress to wake up to the truth and block George Bush's relentless drive to shift federal funding into these ideological programs instead of responsible, medically accurate sex education."
To date, studies on the efficacy of abstinence-only sex education have not shown conclusive proof that such programs work in preventing teen pregnancy. A widely cited October 2002 study conducted for the non-ideological National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP) reviewed ten studies said by abstinence-only proponents to show that such programs reduce sexual activity among youth. The survey found that "there do not currently exist any abstinence-only programs with strong evidence that they either delay sex or reduce teen pregnancy."
The NCPTP studyâ€™s author, Dr. Douglas Kirby, pointed out that "this does not mean that abstinence-only programs are not effective, nor does it mean that they are effective." Instead, Kirby concluded that "given the great diversity of abstinence-only programs combined with very few rigorous studies of their impact, there is simply too little evidence to know whether abstinence-only programs delay the initiation of sex."
On the other hand, a previous study by NCPTP found that sex education programs that "deliver and consistently reinforce a clear message about abstaining from sexual activity and/or using condoms or other forms of contraception" and "provide basic, accurate information about the risks of teen sexual activity and about ways to avoid intercourse or use methods of protection against pregnancy and STDs" are most effective in decreasing unprotected sexual activity by delaying sex or increasing contraceptive use.
Nevertheless, according to Cynthia Dailard of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research and public education, there is no federal program that funds comprehensive sexuality education.
Support for abstinence-only programs, however, has expanded rapidly under the Bush Administration. Congress has budgeted $167 million for abstinence-only education in fiscal year 2005 -- more than twice that spent in FY 2001. The report released by Waxman states that abstinence-only programs now reach "millions" of children and adolescents.
The United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the industrialized world, much higher than most European countries.
Some believe Europeâ€™s success is based on the comprehensive, relatively progressive sex education curricula taught there. In an interview with WebMD Medical News, Susheela Singh, director of research at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which conducted a study of worldwide teen pregnancy and abortion rates, attributed reduced rates of teen pregnancy in many European countries to the acceptance that teens are sexually active and the provision of condoms, emergency contraception and comprehensive sex education.
As James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth in Washington, DC, explained to WebMD: "In Europe, sex is a public health issue, driven by research. In the US, sex is a political issue driven by controversy."