By Tyler LePard
Despite repeated scientific proof that abstinence-only programs don't work, the Administration on Children and Families (ACF) and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB)–program offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)–recently announced a grant to the Medical Institute for Sexual Health to develop online abstinence training programs. This $207,400 grant qualifies as technical assistance from the Abstinence Education Division of FYSB in order to integrate "medical and scientific information into abstinence education programming."
According to their website, the Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MI) is a credible scientific organization interested in public health:
"MI was founded to confront the global epidemics of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). We identify and evaluate scientific information on sexual health and promote healthy sexual decisions and behaviors by communicating credible scientific information."
However, their focus on abstinence, to the exclusion of important health aspects of comprehensive sex ed shows, that they value ideology over sound public health. The Medical Institute plays up the failure rate of contraception and opposes mandating the HPV vaccine (despite acknowledging HPV as the most common sexually transmitted infection). Additionally, SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) features the Medical Institute in their National Opponents of Comprehensive Sexuality.
Previously the Medical Institute received a Congressional Earmark to teach abstinence-only sex ed to medical students. This project was lead by David Hager, who is a National Advisory Board Member of the Institute. You may recognize him as a Bush appointee to the Reproductive Health Drugs Committee of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where he opposed over-the-counter status for Plan B (he also won't prescribe contraception for unmarried women and treats PMS with prayer).
The Guttmacher Institute presents new analysis, authored by Heather Boonstra, that confirms abstinence-only programs waste tax dollars in "The Case for a New Approach to Sex Education Mounts; Will Policymakers Heed the Message?":
"In the interest of public health, as well as a matter of common sense, Congress should break with the past and invest our scarce public dollars where we know they will have the greatest impact–into a more comprehensive approach to sex education …
Comprehensive sex education stresses abstinence and responsible decision making, but also includes information on contraception and avoiding sexually transmitted infections. Both the evidence and the American public strongly support using this approach to help young people transition from adolescence to adulthood safely and responsibly."
Boonstra points out that steps are slowly being taken to address medical accuracy in sex ed, but more needs to be done.
Abstinence-only funding is also an issue in global AIDS relief. A recent Wall Street Journal (subscriber only access) article by Michael Phillips ("Why an AIDS Fight Faces Delay," May 21, 2007) addresses the fight between science and ideology which centers around the abstinence-only earmark in the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Supporters of the mandate say that without it, programs advocating sexual abstinence until marriage and sexual fidelity after marriage would get shortchanged … The opponents of the provision, however, point to new scientific evidence to back up their claim that the abstinence provision instead inhibits progress against HIV. A new study by the U.S.'s Institute of Medicine concludes that congressional provisions dictating how the administration must spend AIDS money–whether for abstinence or treatment–tie the hands of health professionals on the ground.
"Contrary to basic principles of good management and accountability, the budget allocations have made spending money in a particular way an end in itself rather than a means to an end–in this instance, the vitally important end of saving lives today and in the future," the study concluded.
Reproductive health advocates are disappointed that it seems the Democrats won't take action to eliminate the abstinence-only earmark, but will instead wait for it to expire.
However, H.R. 2432 was recently introduced by the Republicans on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and would link transitional medical assistance (TMA: health coverage for families transitioning from welfare to work) to the Title V abstinence funding, extending them both for three months.
For more information, check out Guttmacher's "Support Sex Education that Works."
Editor's note: You can find the grant announcement to the Medical Institute in the Federal Register Online if you search "DOCID:fr22my07-79"–the "Notice to Award a Grant" should be listed fourth.