Did Congress Forget About Women and Girls?

Jamila Taylor

Considering the current status of legislation to reauthorize PEPFAR, it seems as though Washington lawmakers didn't get it. Did they not hear the arguments of global AIDS prevention advocates fighting for real change to impact those at greatest risk for HIV infection?

Considering the current status of legislation to reauthorize the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), it seems as though Washington lawmakers didn't get it. While lawmakers should be applauded for increasing funding for HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care globally, they missed a crucial opportunity to address the unique vulnerabilities of women and girls. They don't get the fact that more than four-fifths of new HIV infections in women result from sex with their husbands or primary partners (UNFPA, The Promise of Equality 2005). And, they definitely don't get the fact that 74% of the young people (aged 15-24) living with HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are female (UNAIDS, Global Facts and Figures 2006).

Did Washington lawmakers ignore the evidence that points to the fact that the AIDS pandemic is crippling the livelihoods of women and girls? Did they not hear the countless arguments of courageous global AIDS prevention advocates fighting for real change to impact those at greatest risk for HIV infection in regions like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia? HIV and AIDS is pressing itself upon women and seeping its way into their lives through vectors like gender-based violence, sexual coercion, and even marriage.

How did it come to this? Both the House (H.R. 5501) and Senate (S. 2731) versions of the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008 continue the legacy of the extremely harmful abstinence-until-marriage funding directive by imposing a confusing reporting requirement on countries that spend less than 50 percent of sexual transmission funds on abstinence and faithfulness prevention programs. The bills also fail to strike the anti-prostitution loyalty oath, discounting one of the most vulnerable populations at-risk for HIV infection and in need of prevention services.

Regarding the integration of services that women use the most, H.R. 5501 would grant HIV and AIDS funding to family planning programs wishing to also provide women with HIV testing, counseling, and education services. Yet these family planning programs must already receive U.S. funding for population services and therefore must be compliant with the Mexico City Policy. S. 2731 totally neglected the issue of integrated services for women by failing to mention family planning in the context of HIV and AIDS altogether.

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While conducting those "secret" conversations and compromises in the eleventh hour, it seems as though Washington lawmakers forgot about the women and girls who are virtually voiceless when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health. They forgot that abstinence, fidelity, and faithfulness messages in HIV prevention neglect to consider the life circumstances of those most vulnerable to HIV infection. They forgot that the integration of sexual and reproductive health/family planning and HIV and AIDS services is one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to get ahead of the HIV epidemic among women and girls. In the end, political expediency was the most important objective — not the promotion of evidence — based prevention for populations vulnerable to HIV infection, especially women and girls.

The purpose of the Caucus for Evidence-Based Prevention is to highlight and defend the importance of evidence and science in determining what works best to prevent HIV infection. Watch out for the next blog from the Caucus! Coming soon, SIECUS's Bill Smith will introduce the Caucus, comprised of many of the United State's major organizations leading the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily represent those of The Caucus for Evidence-Based Prevention.

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News Health Systems

Texas Anti-Choice Group Gets $1.6 Million Windfall From State

Teddy Wilson

“Healthy Texas Women funding should be going directly to medical providers who have experience providing family planning and preventive care services, not anti-abortion organizations that have never provided those services," Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement.

A Texas anti-choice organization will receive more than $1.6 million in state funds from a reproductive health-care program designed by legislators to exclude Planned Parenthood

The Heidi Group was awarded the second largest grant ever provided for services through the Healthy Texas Women program, according to the Associated Press.

Carol Everett, the founder and CEO of the group and a prominent anti-choice activist and speaker, told the AP her organization’s contract with the state “is about filling gaps, not about ideology.”

“I did not see quality health care offered to women in rural areas,” Everett said.

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement that it was “inappropriate” for the state to award a contract to an organization for services that it has never performed.

“The Heidi Group is an anti-abortion organization, it is not a healthcare provider,” Busby said.

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State lawmakers in 2011 sought to exclude Planned Parenthood from the Texas Women’s Health Program, which was jointly funded through federal and state dollars. Texas launched a state-funded version in 2013, and this year lawmakers announced the Healthy Texas Women program.

Healthy Texas Women is designed help women between the ages of 18 and 44 with a household income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and includes $285 million in funding and 5,000 providers across the state.

Bubsy said the contract to the Heidi Group was “especially troubling” in light of claims made by Everett in response to a recent policy requiring abortion providers to cremate or bury fetal remains. Everett has argued that methods of disposal of fetal remains could contaminate the water supply.

“There’s several health concerns. What if the woman had HIV? What if she had a sexually transmitted disease? What if those germs went through and got into our water supply,” Everett told an Austin Fox News affiliate.

The transmission of HIV or other sexually transmitted infections through water systems or similar means is not supported by scientific evidence.

“The state has no business contracting with an entity, or an individual, that perpetuates such absurd, inaccurate claims,” Busby said. “Healthy Texas Women funding should be going directly to medical providers who have experience providing family planning and preventive care services, not anti-abortion organizations that have never provided those services.”

According to a previous iteration of the Heidi Group’s website, the organization worked to help “girls and women in unplanned pregnancies make positive, life-affirming choices.”

Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokesperson Bryan Black told the Texas Tribune that the Heidi Group had “changed its focus.”

The Heidi Group “will now be providing women’s health and family planning services required by Healthy Texas Women, including birth control, STI screening and treatment, plus cancer screenings to women across Texas,” Black said in an email to the Tribune.

Its current site reads: “The Heidi Group exists to ensure that all Texas women have access to quality health care by coordinating services in a statewide network of full-service medical providers.”

Everett told the American-Statesman the organization will distribute the state funds to 25 clinics and physicians across the state, but she has yet to disclose which clinics or physicians will receive the funds or what its selection process will entail.

She also disputed the criticism that her opposition to abortion would affect how her organization would distribute the state funds.

“As a woman, I am never going to tell another woman what to tell to do,” Everett said. “Our goal is to find out what she wants to do. We want her to have fully informed decision on what she wants to do.”

“I want to find health care for that woman who can’t afford it. She is the one in my thoughts,” she continued.

The address listed on the Heidi Group’s award is the same as an anti-choice clinic, commonly referred to as a crisis pregnancy center, in San Antonio, the Texas Observer reported.

Life Choices Medical Clinic offers services including pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and well-woman exams. However, the clinic does not provide abortion referrals or any contraception, birth control, or family planning services.

The organization’s mission is to “save the lives of unborn children, minister to women and men facing decisions involving pregnancy and sexual health, and touch each life with the love of Christ.”

Commentary Sexual Health

Parents, Educators Can Support Pediatricians in Providing Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Nicole Cushman

While medical systems will need to evolve to address the challenges preventing pediatricians from sharing medically accurate and age-appropriate information about sexuality with their patients, there are several things I recommend parents and educators do to reinforce AAP’s guidance.

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a clinical report outlining guidance for pediatricians on providing sexuality education to the children and adolescents in their care. As one of the most influential medical associations in the country, AAP brings, with this report, added weight to longstanding calls for comprehensive sex education.

The report offers guidance for clinicians on incorporating conversations about sexual and reproductive health into routine medical visits and summarizes the research supporting comprehensive sexuality education. It acknowledges the crucial role pediatricians play in supporting their patients’ healthy development, making them key stakeholders in the promotion of young people’s sexual health. Ultimately, the report could bolster efforts by parents and educators to increase access to comprehensive sexuality education and better equip young people to grow into sexually healthy adults.

But, while the guidance provides persuasive, evidence-backed encouragement for pediatricians to speak with parents and children and normalize sexual development, the report does not acknowledge some of the practical challenges to implementing such recommendations—for pediatricians as well as parents and school staff. Articulating these real-world challenges (and strategies for overcoming them) is essential to ensuring the report does not wind up yet another publication collecting proverbial dust on bookshelves.

The AAP report does lay the groundwork for pediatricians to initiate conversations including medically accurate and age-appropriate information about sexuality, and there is plenty in the guidelines to be enthusiastic about. Specifically, the report acknowledges something sexuality educators have long known—that a simple anatomy lesson is not sufficient. According to the AAP, sexuality education should address interpersonal relationships, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity, and reproductive rights as part of a comprehensive conversation about sexual health.

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The report further acknowledges that young people with disabilities, chronic health conditions, and other special needs also need age- and developmentally appropriate sex education, and it suggests resources for providing care to LGBTQ young people. Importantly, the AAP rejects abstinence-only approaches as ineffective and endorses comprehensive sexuality education.

It is clear that such guidance is sorely needed. Previous studies have shown that pediatricians have not been successful at having conversations with their patients about sexuality. One study found that one in three adolescents did not receive any information about sexuality from their pediatrician during health maintenance visits, and those conversations that did occur lasted less than 40 seconds, on average. Another analysis showed that, among sexually experienced adolescents, only a quarter of girls and one-fifth of boys had received information from a health-care provider about sexually transmitted infections or HIV in the last year. 

There are a number of factors at play preventing pediatricians from having these conversations. Beyond parental pushback and anti-choice resistance to comprehensive sex education, which Martha Kempner has covered in depth for Rewire, doctor visits are often limited in time and are not usually scheduled to allow for the kind of discussion needed to build a doctor-patient relationship that would be conducive to providing sexuality education. Doctors also may not get needed in-depth training to initiate and sustain these important, ongoing conversations with patients and their families.

The report notes that children and adolescents prefer a pediatrician who is nonjudgmental and comfortable discussing sexuality, answering questions and addressing concerns, but these interpersonal skills must be developed and honed through clinical training and practice. In order to fully implement the AAP’s recommendations, medical school curricula and residency training programs would need to devote time to building new doctors’ comfort with issues surrounding sexuality, interpersonal skills for navigating tough conversations, and knowledge and skills necessary for providing LGBTQ-friendly care.

As AAP explains in the report, sex education should come from many sources—schools, communities, medical offices, and homes. It lays out what can be a powerful partnership between parents, doctors, and educators in providing the age-appropriate and truly comprehensive sexuality education that young people need and deserve. While medical systems will need to evolve to address the challenges outlined above, there are several things I recommend parents and educators do to reinforce AAP’s guidance.

Parents and Caregivers: 

  • When selecting a pediatrician for your child, ask potential doctors about their approach to sexuality education. Make sure your doctor knows that you want your child to receive comprehensive, medically accurate information about a range of issues pertaining to sexuality and sexual health.
  • Talk with your child at home about sex and sexuality. Before a doctor’s visit, help your child prepare by encouraging them to think about any questions they may have for the doctor about their body, sexual feelings, or personal safety. After the visit, check in with your child to make sure their questions were answered.
  • Find out how your child’s school approaches sexuality education. Make sure school administrators, teachers, and school board members know that you support age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education that will complement the information provided by you and your child’s pediatrician.

School Staff and Educators: 

  • Maintain a referral list of pediatricians for parents to consult. When screening doctors for inclusion on the list, ask them how they approach sexuality education with patients and their families.
  • Involve supportive pediatricians in sex education curriculum review committees. Medical professionals can provide important perspective on what constitutes medically accurate, age- and developmentally-appropriate content when selecting or adapting curriculum materials for sex education classes.
  • Adopt sex-education policies and curricula that are comprehensive and inclusive of all young people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Ensure that teachers receive the training and support they need to provide high-quality sex education to their students.

The AAP clinical report provides an important step toward ensuring that young people receive sexuality education that supports their healthy sexual development. If adopted widely by pediatricians—in partnership with parents and schools—the report’s recommendations could contribute to a sea change in providing young people with the care and support they need.

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