Former surgeon general Richard Carmona revealed that federal policies concerning
abstinence-only programs, stem-cell research, emergency contraception, and
abortion are founded on dogma, not science. According to the good doctor's
testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,
politics, ideology, and theology take priority over women's health in this
While the fact that the administration views public health policy through
conservative blinders is not altogether unexpected, the funding scheme for
abstinence-only programs provides a particularly deplorable example. Despite
years of evidence clearly showing that these extreme programs are ineffective
and harmful, federal funding continues at over $200 million a year and growing.
Under the Bush administration, abstinence-only subsidies have gushed forth --
creating a deluge of funding for far-right religious groups, amidst a dearth of
Carmona's testimony confirms that the enormous funding for strict
abstinence-only policies is politically motivated, and comes at the expense of
women's and girls' health. Spending policies are dictated by "preconceived
political agendas," he testified, which "fly in the face of good science." Yet
naysayers with their do-good science were ignored, says Carmona, because the
administration "did not want to hear the science but wanted to, if you will,
'preach abstinence,' which I felt was scientifically incorrect."
Former surgeon general David Satcher testified about a similar trend during his
tenure in the sex-plagued Clinton administration. As far back as 2001 he found
no scientific evidence that abstinence-only education is effective, and
recommended that children be given age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality
education. However, his report was released only later during the Bush
administration, and without the administration's support. "You know the
politics of sex in Washington," Satcher said that then Secretary of Health and
Human Services Tommy Thompson commented to him.
Now is the time to put abstinence-only education to bed. These federally funded
programs do not reduce teen sexual activity, and do impede efforts to prevent
sexually transmitted diseases. The most recent and in-depth abstinence study,
conducted by the non partisan Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., at the behest
of Congress, confirmed that students who participate in these programs are as
likely to have sex by age 16 as their peers who did not participate, and they
are likely to have had as many partners as those who did not take
abstinence-only classes. Students who are exposed to abstinence-only programs
become less informed about the use of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted
diseases. These programs are effective only at teaching ignorance.
Worse than simply being wasteful, these programs actually cause harm to women
and girls, because they are the ones who get pregnant and who are more
biologically vulnerable to the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Right
now young women of color are the group with the fastest-growing rates of HIV
Yet federal guidelines prohibit abstinence-only programs from providing any
instruction in contraceptive or condom use. Programs instead must promote only
abstinence until marriage as the way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and disease.
Furthermore, the majority of abstinence-only curricula are riddled with sexual
stereotypes, homophobia, and misinformation about disease intended to scare
girls away from sex.
In reality 95 percent of Americans do have sex before marriage, most before
they reach age 19. We must stop funding harmful and ineffective abstinence-only
programs and instead support a more comprehensive approach to sexuality
education and reproductive health. Young people should be taught abstinence
where appropriate but also must learn the complex skills needed to make healthy
and informed life and relationship choices. And we must enable young men and
women to access reproductive healthcare in order to remain safe regardless of
The timing is perfect for Congress to take action to reverse the health policy
disaster that abstinence-only programs promote. First, the reauthorization of
Title V -- the Social Security Act whose provisions define abstinence-only
programs -- provides an ideal opportunity for Congress to reverse course.
Moreover, the political underpinnings for the abstinence behemoth the Community
Based Abstinence Education have now been laid bare. It has funded extreme and
inaccurate abstinence-only programs and should be ended.
Reforming the Office of Surgeon General is just one important step in the
battle to prioritize science. As several surgeons generals' testimony exposed,
the public health cost of federal programs that fund sexual ignorance is too
high. It's time to start funding policies that promote comprehensive
reproductive education essential to protecting girls and women's health. It's
about sex, not politics.
Julie F. Kay is a senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum -- Advancing Women's
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