by Bob Roehr
WASHINGTON, DC –
After more than a decade and $1.3 billion dollars of funding, the U.S. Congress finally got around to holding its first hearing on abstinence only until marriage sex education program. There were few surprises and unfortunately, there are likely to be few real changes in federal funding of those activities.
Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) opened the April 23 hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform by reciting “shocking” statistics on sexually transmitted diseases recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“One in four teenage girls in the U.S. has a sexually transmitted infection; 30% of all American girls become pregnant before the age of 20; for African-American and Latina girls, the rate is 50%. And thousands of teenagers and young adults in the United States become infected with HIV each year.”
“There’s a lot of talk about the failure rates of condoms. It’s time we face the facts about the failure rate of abstinence only programs,” Waxman said. “The question we must ask today is whether we can justify pouring millions more into these programs when the weight of the evidence points elsewhere.”
Expert witnesses pointed out the growing evidence that abstinence only programs simply do not work. California never accepted the funds and over time sixteen other states have joined them in that decision, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Association. “For a health department to give up funding is a very important fact.”
The witnesses urged support for comprehensive sexual education programs that include abstinence messages but also empower youth with the facts and tools necessary to make decisions and protect their own health.
The emotional highpoint of the session came in testimony by Max Siegel, with the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families. He said he became infected with HIV at the age of 17 during his first sexual encounter.
“I took out a condom, but he ignored it. I did not know how to assert myself further. I knew enough to suggest a condom, but I didn’t adequately understand the importance of using one, and even if I did, I had no idea of how to discuss condoms with my partner. The abstinence only message did not prepare me for life.”
AIDS Action reiterated its opposition to the programs in written testimony. “It is not only unethical to deny young people life saving information and education, but reprehensible for Congress to continue spending American tax dollars on ideologically based programs that are proven to be unsuccessful.” It called on Congress to stop funding the programs.
“If we’re serious about responding to these challenges, we must base our policy on the best available science and evidence, not ideology,” Chairman Waxman said. Yet, by the end of the four hours of testimony, he seemed unwilling to simply stop funding the failed abstinence only programs.
His solution appears to be block grants that would allow states the flexibility to spend federal money as they choose, including on abstinence only programs.
Given that local option, it seems inevitable that federal dollars will continue to pour into failed abstinence only programs, particularly in those parts of the country that are most in need of open, honest, and frank discussion of matters sexual. So much for congressional oversight and leadership.