Ab-Only: Where Do We Go From Here?

James Wagoner

The time has come for the Democrats to correct course and stop government funding of ineffective abstinence-only programs. How can congressional leaders continue to ignore the public health consensus about science-based programs?

Last Wednesday, Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, conducted the first-ever hearing on the effectiveness of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. It took 12 years of conservative congressional leadership and $1.5 billion before we finally achieved some public accountability for these failed programs.

Congressman Waxman deserves a great deal of credit, and our thanks, for focusing congressional attention on the biggest ideological boondoggle of the last 50 years. His committee reports have been pivotal in focusing the public's attention on the problems inherent in these programs.

The spotlight, and pressure, now clearly shifts to the House Democratic leadership to act. After the overwhelming evidence highlighting the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs presented at last week's hearing, Congress cannot replay last year's debacle when Chairman David Obey pushed to increase funding for these failed programs by $28 million.

The hearing produced a litany of rejection of abstinence-only programs from mainstream, science-based public health organizations. The American Academy of Pediatrics testified that the abstinence-only approach was not only ineffective, but could cause real harm to young people. The Institute of Medicine stated that continued support for these programs does not "comport with the evidence" and no reason existed to hamstring federal interventions by placing them in the abstinence-only straight-jacket. The American Public Health Association also rejected abstinence-only programs and cited the significance of 17 states rejecting abstinence-only dollars in the face of the enormous need for public health resources at the state level.

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Supporters of abstinence-only programs tried to muddy the waters by constantly referring to a discredited Heritage Foundation report claiming that abstinence-only programs work and that the federal government spends more money on comprehensive sex education programs than on abstinence-only programs. They also turned to one of their favorite researchers, Stan Weed, whose study of a Virginia abstinence-only program raised more concerns than it addressed. Weed's support staff at the hearing included Valerie Huber, the chief lobbyist for the National Abstinence Education Association, an organization known for its misleading and inaccurate information about sex education.

Fortunately, Dr. John Santelli from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health (and a former high-ranking CDC official in the field of teen pregnancy prevention) summed it all up by explaining that abstinence has a legitimate role within comprehensive sex education which also includes birth control and condoms. However, abstinence-only programs that exclude information about birth control and condoms, have no place at the center of federal sex education policy.

So where do we go from here?

The time has come for the Democrats to correct course and stop government funding of ineffective abstinence-only programs. With the teen birth rate on the rise, with one in four teen girls contracting an STD, with 55 young people getting HIV every single day, how can congressional leaders continue to ignore the public health consensus about science-based programs?

If we listen to the experts from last week, the path for Democratic leaders is clear — it's time to support what works. All the data, the studies, and the logic, point to one conclusion — a comprehensive approach to sex education that includes birth control and condoms, as well as abstinence, works.

So, no more excuses. It's time to protect the health and lives of America's youth in the era of AIDS.

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